US commander hails successful drills with China

AFP
US vice admiral Robert Thomas Jr speaks during a press conference aboard the USS Blue Ridge command ship shortly after arriving at the international port in Manila on March 18, 2014, for a port visit
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US vice admiral Robert Thomas Jr speaks during a press conference aboard the USS Blue Ridge command ship shortly after arriving at the international port in Manila on March 18, 2014, for a port visit (AFP Photo/Ted Aljibe)

Singapore (AFP) - A top US commander has praised China's participation in huge US-led drills seen as a step towards potentially thawing tensions between the two powers, saying it had gone "very, very well".

Four ships of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) with an estimated 1,000 sailors on board are participating in the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercises off Hawaii for the first time.

China's participation in the June 26-August 1 drills -- the world's largest international maritime exercise, featuring forces from 22 countries -- has been seen as a step forward at a time of heightened US-China tensions.

"My understanding is that it has gone very, very well," US 7th Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Robert Thomas told reporters in Singapore, where he was attending separate bilateral drills.

The 7th Fleet is also taking part in RIMPAC, and Thomas said that from the fleet's perspective, "our relationship with the PLAN... is very collegial and very professional".

China and the United States have found themselves increasingly at odds as Beijing seeks to assert its claim to disputed territories in the East and South China Seas at a time when Washington is seeking to shore up its influence in the region.

Last week, China dispatched a spy ship to international waters off Hawaii, close to where RIMPAC was being carried out, in a reminder that relations remain fraught between the Asian giant and Western superpower.

Thomas said Chinese military exercises in its southeast coastal areas and live firing drills in the East China Sea from July 29 to August 2 are "expected".

"Just as the PLAN is exercising with us out in RIMPAC and a bunch of other navies, one would expect that they keep up a steady drumbeat of exercises out here in the region," he said.

Thomas was in Singapore for the CARAT exercise, an annual bilateral naval drill with the city-state, one of the America's closest security partners in Asia.

The US Navy maintains a logistical command unit in Singapore to coordinate warship deployment and logistics in the region.

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