MANAMA, Bahrain — During a rare exercise involving U.S. and Chinese naval forces in the Gulf of Aden, the two countries’ navies landed helicopters on each other’s ships for the first time.
Commodore Joseph Naman, a U.S. Navy captain and commander of Destroyer Squadron 50, called it “a significant milestone.”
In what could potentially be a small-scale rehearsal for the large-scale RIMPAC 2014 exercise in the Pacific, the two-day bilateral exercise in the Gulf of Aden that ended Sunday focused on counter-piracy operations.
The guided-missile destroyer USS Mason and the Chinese destroyer Harbin conducted a series of drills that included members of both navies taking part in on-board search-and-seizure drills, live-fire proficiency and aviation operations, the U.S. Navy 5th Fleet said.
“For me and for my crew, it was one of those once-in-a-career experiences,” said Cmdr. D. Wilson Marks, commander of the USS Mason.
One of the events involved a combined U.S. and Chinese team boarding a Chinese oil tanker that was role-playing as a pirated vessel. The scenario included hostages and a mock medical emergency.
The joint exercise comes in the wake of a meeting earlier this month between China’s defense minister, Gen. Chang Wanquan, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Both spoke of the importance of building a military-to-military relationship between the two countries, which often are politically at odds. At the Pentagon meeting, both agreed to enhance cooperation in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counterterrorism, anti-piracy and peacekeeping.
“When it comes to freedom in the maritime environment ... I think both China and the U.S. share the common goal to make that happen,” said Naman, who would like to work with China more often to build on interoperability. “If we all share the same goal, we should be working together.”
While China does its part to combat piracy, it does so independently and is not part of the coalition task force established in 2009 to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden. However, the U.S. would welcome China’s inclusion, Naman said in a phone interview from the USS Mason. “If we can get them to be a part of the coalition task force, that would be an even more substantial step forward.”
“Exercises like this expand our levels of cooperation,” Marks said, also by phone.
Hagel has invited China to participate in the U.S.-led RIMPAC 2014, the largest international maritime exercise, which takes place biennially in the Pacific.
The first U.S.-Chinese counter-piracy exercise was held near the Horn of Africa with the USS Winston S. Churchill and the Chinese frigate Yi Yang in September 2012, according to the U.S. Navy.
U.S. officials say piracy off the Horn of Africa remains a threat despite “significant progress” stemming from a 2009 U.N. Security Council resolution that joined 80 countries in the effort to combat piracy in the area. Since 2011 there has been a 90 percent reduction in the number of hostage-takings by pirates around the Horn of Africa, and the last successful pirate attack on a merchant vessel in the area occurred in May 2012, according to the State Department.