In the South China Sea on Sunday morning the navies of China and the United States (US) held a joint search-and-rescue exercise.
The exercise involved China's guided missile destroyer Zhanjiang, fuel tanker Dongting Lake, the USS Juneau (LPD 10) and the USS missile destroyer Fitzgerald. China's Yun-7 transport plane and the US P-3C patrol plane also participated in the exercise.
The two navies communicated, made fleet formation changes and carried out search-and-rescue exercises. The idea behind the exercise was for the two navies to jointly locate a vessel in danger and salvage it. The two countries took command of different stages of the exercise.
The Chinese took charge of the communications and search stage while the US commanded vessels of the two countries to conduct the rescue. The communications drills had been conducted at Saturday night in the waters east of the Zhanjiang Port.
The formation drill started at 7:30 AM and China's Zhanjiang and the USS Juneau completed four formation changes in approximately one hour.
At 9:25 AM the joint rescue exercise started. The USS Juneau sent the order to the USS missile destroyer Fitzgerald to search for the "Dongting Lake", the Chinese ship "in danger", after receiving Zhanjiang's signal for help. The Yun-7 and P-3C were asked to assist in locating the ship.
On 10:25 AM the location of the ship "in danger" was confirmed and approximately 30 minutes later "the fire" on the vessel was extinguished, "damage" to the ship was repaired and "injured" crew members received medical treatment.
"In the exercises the two navies demonstrated very good military skills and strong cooperative spirits," said Gu Wengen, commander of the South China Sea fleet of the Navy Force of the People's Liberation Army.
"The exercise symbolizes more substantial cooperation between the armed forces of China and the United States which is very important to the future development of bilateral military relations," said Qian Lihua, deputy director of the Foreign Affairs Office of Chinese Defense Ministry.
China has conducted such exercises with other countries including Britain, France, Pakistan, India, Australia and Thailand. But Sunday's exercise was the first ever between China and the US.
In the past exchanges between the Chinese and US armed forces have mainly focused on high-level visits, personnel communication and regular consultations.
"The current search-and-rescue exercise is an important and substantial exchange activity between the two armed forces," Qian noted. "It has been of vital importance to expanding the Sino-US military cooperation despite its limited scale in terms of troops and vessels."
Major General Peng Guangqian, a researcher at the Academy of Military Sciences, said the choice of search-and-rescue as the content of the exercise showed a trend towards more substantial cooperation between the two armed forces.
"Only if we make breakthroughs in cooperation at a lower level can we further conduct more cooperation in some higher-grade areas including weapons and equipment technology and military drills in traditional security areas," he noted.
Visiting US Pacific Fleet Commander Gary Roughead said, "The visit of the USS Juneau is indicative of improved military relations and transparency between the People's Liberation Army navy and the US navy." He added that the exercise was a good opportunity for the two armed forces to increase transparency.
China-US military ties were broken off in 2001 when a Chinese fighter aircraft was damaged by a US surveillance plane over the South China Sea but relations between the two have been improving.
According to Qian the two countries have carried out a series of exchange activities this year with higher level personnel communications than in the past. This year has seen the most active Sino-US military exchanges in recent years and the two sides were "satisfied" with both the quantity and the quality of the activities, Qian said.
The frequent joint military drills held between China and foreign countries in recent years show China has adopted an open approach in building its military, Peng said.
Sunday's exercise was the second phase of the first joint Sino-American search-and-rescue exercise. The first phase, held in September this year, consisted of communications and exercises held in the waters off Hawaii.
(Xinhua News Agency November 20, 2006)