China to join naval war games off Australia despite strained ties

SYDNEY (Reuters) - China’s navy will join 26 countries in military exercises off Australia’s north coast this month, but not live-fire drills, Australia’s defense minister said on Wednesday at a time of strained ties between the two nations.

The naval exercises are being hosted by Australia and will also include its major ally the United States, which expelled China in May from its military training around Hawaii - a response to what it sees as Beijing’s militarization of islands in the South China Sea.

Ties between Australia and China hit a low after Canberra passed laws aimed at thwarting Chinese influence in domestic affairs and also over China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Australia has offered diplomatic support to U.S. “freedom of navigation” voyages through the South China Sea and its own vessels encountered Chinese warships there in April.

But Australia stuck with an invitation it issued China last September, a sign analysts say hints at a thawing in relations ahead of the drills that begin at the end of August.

“China is expected to participate in a range of activities including passage exercises, inter-ship communications and replenishment activities and sea-training maneuvers,” Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne said in an emailed statement.

“There are no plans for China to participate in live-fire activities,” she said, without giving a reason, but adding the nations have “built a productive defense relationship that ... facilitates transparency and builds trust”.

China’s Defence Ministry said in a statement it had received the invitation and was in communication with Australia about it, referring further questions to the Australian side.

The drills will be held in strategic waters north of Darwin, where a decision to lease the city’s port to a Chinese firm drew a sharp rebuke from the United States. They run to mid-September and involve 27 nations.

China was involved in the drills as an observer in 2016. Only Britain declined an invitation to participate this time, a spokesman for Australia’s defense minister said in an email.

Analysts suggest China’s involvement in the drills could mean a new willingness to engage.

“The Chinese government has tended to cut down on official visits and official interactions so perhaps this is a sign that senior Chinese officials are happier,” said Andre Carr, senior lecturer in the strategic and defense studies center at the Australian National University.

Reporting by Tom Westbrook and Colin Packham; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Gao Liangping in BEIJING; Editing by Nick Macfie