PEARL HARBOR, Oahu — Three Chinese ships carrying hundreds of sailors arrived in Hawaii on Friday to join a search-and-rescue exercise with the U.S. Navy during a rare visit intended to foster familiarity.
The guided missile destroyer Qingdao, a frigate and a supply ship were welcomed with performances by lion dancers and a children’s hula group. The ships carrying 680 officers and sailors will participate in the exercise Monday with the USS Lake Erie in waters off Waikiki and Diamond Head.
The exercise is an important way for the two navies to share information about operations so they don’t misinterpret movements and potentially start a conflict, said Brad Glosserman, executive director of Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“There are lots of places where our vessels could end up in proximity, and we want to make very sure that when that happens we have the best possible understanding of what the other side is doing and why,” he said.
The visit comes as Beijing continues to be wary about Washington’s strategic “rebalance” toward Asia, in which the Navy is basing a majority of its ships in the Pacific and the U.S. is boosting ties with longtime allies such as Australia and Japan.
China sees the moves as an effort to counter its expanding military and contain its growing economic and political influence.
Chinese ships last visited the U.S. in 2006, when the Qingdao and the Hongzehu stopped in Pearl Harbor and San Diego for communications drills and search-and -rescue exercises off those coasts. The two nations last held a joint drill in 2012 during an anti-piracy exercise off Somalia.
China’s military has said the drills build on a June commitment by President Barack Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping to strengthen ties.
The Navy said the visit is part of its ongoing effort to develop relationships with foreign navies to build trust, encourage cooperation, enhance transparency and avoid miscalculation.
Rear Adm. Rick Williams, commander of Navy Region Hawaii and Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific, said the two navies are showing their commitment to a stable world by working together and sharing aloha for the next several days.
“We are linked with you together in history, and we will be linked together in the future,” Williams said about China.
Rear Adm. Wei Gang, chief of staff, North Sea Fleet and head of the delegation, said there’s been steady progress in U.S.-China relations in recent years.
“This time, I, together with all the officers and the men of the task group, entrusted by our Chinese government and the people, sailed all the way across the broad Pacific and brought here to our American friends the friendly feelings of the Chinese people and the People’s Liberation Army,” Wei said through an interpreter.
During the drills, sailors will practice turning ships at sea, conduct searches and rescues, and send small boats back and forth between ships, Williams said. U.S. and Chinese helicopters will also work together.
Socializing is a major part of the visit. Over the weekend, sailors will play basketball and soccer, attend two receptions, and visit the USS Arizona Memorial and the now-decommissioned World War II-era battleship Missouri.