Marines fire the 81mm mortar system June 19 during a weapons competition aboard Mount Bundey Training Area, Australia. (Cpl. James Gulliver / US Marine Corps)
WASHINGTON — China’s military will take part in an infantry exercise for the first time with Australian and US forces in October, the Pentagon said on Thursday.
The joint exercise will take place in northern Australia and marks another step forward in efforts by Washington and Canberra to bolster relations with China’s People’s Liberation Army, officials said.
“This is a small-scale exercise,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Steven Warren told reporter.
The drill would involve “less than a 100 total personnel,” including one or two squads of US Marines, Warren said.
“The goal of the exercise is learn how to survive and thrive in austere conditions,” he said.
China broke new ground last month by taking part in a major US-led naval exercise in the Pacific. The Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) event is still underway, and Australia is also among the countries participating.
The US Marines involved in the October infantry exercise likely will come from a contingent now operating out of Darwin, which is due to increase from roughly 1,100 to up to 2,500 by 2017.
China has expressed concern over the US troop rotation in Australia and accused Washington of trying to stifle Beijing’s growing influence in the region.
Both Australia and the United States have urged Beijing to resolve a series of territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea through peaceful means and to agree a “code of conduct” for regional states.
The United States recently has accused China of “destabilizing” actions in the South China Sea, and Australia has endorsed Washington’s criticism.
The Pentagon said the October drills would help strengthen defense ties and were designed — like other exercises — with the aim of defusing potential tensions or miscalculations.
“We believe that closer military-to-military bonds facilitate clear lines of communication, and fosters a spirit of cooperation to meet regional and global challenges for mutual benefit,” spokesman Lt. Col. Jeffrey Pool said.