China has accepted an invitation from the United States to participate, for the first time, in Rim of the Pacific naval exercises off Hawaii next year, the Pentagon said.
The invitation was made after the U.S. military last year re-evaluated the ongoing exclusion of China from the big multinational set of sea drills, war games and humanitarian assistance exercises that are held every two years.
RIMPAC 2012 was the biggest ever held, a sign of the growing attention to events in Asia and the Pacific. Twenty-two nations took part, eight more than in 2010.
"We've invited China to participate in the RIMPAC exercises, which we host, and are delighted to have their participation in what will be a strengthening and growing military-to-military relationship with China," Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said March 20. Carter's announcement was forshadowed at a news conference in Beijing in September, when then-U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said China would be invited to send a single ship.
The U.S. Pacific Fleet sent the formal invitation to the People's Liberation Army Navy in January, said Army Lt. Col Cathy Wilkinson, U.S. defense press officer for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs at the Pentagon.
China informed U.S. officials last month that it plans to participate, she said.
A small Chinese contingent did observe RIMPAC in 1998, the Navy previously said. But certain direct military-to-military contact with China is prohibited under the National Defense Authorization Act of 2000.
Under that law the Pentagon is prohibited from contact with the People's Liberation Army that would "create a national security risk due to an inappropriate exposure" to operations including surveillance and reconnaissance and joint combat operations.
Exceptions include search and rescue and humanitarian exercises.
In 2006 a waiver of the restrictions allowed a Chinese team to observe a portion of the Valiant Shield exercises off Guam.
How exactly China will participate in RIMPAC in the late summer of 2014 is unclear.
Planning for RIMPAC 2014 is still in the early stages, with the initial conference scheduled for May, Wilkinson said.
"At this early stage in the planning, participating nations have not yet indicated what forces they intend to contribute in RIMPAC 2014," she said. "Each participating nation determines their own level of participation and the training objectives for their forces."
Wilkinson said that Chinese participation in RIMPAC "will be in compliance with U.S. legislation and regulations."
She added, "The U.S. Navy has operational security safeguards to protect U.S. technology and tactics, techniques and procedures from disclosure. This is the case for all nations that participate in RIMPAC."
U.S.-Chinese military-to-military engagements can include a range of activities in areas of mutual interest including maritime security, military medicine and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, she said.
In 2009 President Barack Obama called for military contacts to diminish disputes with China, and the U.S. is seeking to expand that cooperation.
A divide exists, however, as to the usefulness of the U.S. outreach.
A March 19 Congressional Research Service report on the issue of U.S-Chinese military contacts said skeptics and proponents of military exchanges with China have debated whether the contacts have achieved results in U.S. objectives or whether the contacts have contributed to Chinese war-fighting capabilities that might harm U.S. security interests.
"The (People's Republic of China's) harassment of U.S. surveillance ships in 2009 and increasing assertiveness in maritime areas have shown the limits to mil-to-mil talks and (People's Liberation Army) restraint," the report said.