BEIJING — Three Chinese naval ships are sailing east to join rare search-and-rescue drills with the United States as Beijing ramps up its military diplomacy.
The ships left the port of Qingdao on Tuesday for waters off Hawaii, where they will exchange coordinating officers and observers during the exercises, the Defense Ministry said Wednesday on its website.
Later in the cruise, the ships will also travel to Australia and New Zealand for similar exercises and exchanges.
Deputy navy commander Xu Hongmeng was quoted by newspapers as calling the exercises an "important mission of military diplomacy" that helps consolidate a commitment to build stronger ties made by President Barack Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping at a June summit in California.
The ships' departure came during a visit to the U.S. by Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan, during which he and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke hopefully of building greater trust through expanded military cooperation.
During Chang's visit, Hagel pledged to visit China next year. China's navy will participate for the first time in a major international maritime exercise known as Rim of the Pacific and the sides plan to boost anti-piracy cooperation off the coast of Somalia.
The moves are part of an on-again, off-again drive to build mutual confidence and ensure military exchanges aren't affected by the ups and downs in the overall relationship.
Military-to-military relations continue to develop despite Beijing's wariness over the Pentagon's strategic "pivot" to Asia and the Pacific. China sees the moves to base the bulk of the U.S. Navy's vessels in the region and strengthen alliances with allies such as Australia as part of an effort to counter its expanding military and contain its growing economic and political influence.
China's disputes with Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and other Asian neighbors over territorial boundaries in the South China Sea are also an irritant. The U.S. insists it does not take sides in territorial claims, but encourages all parties to avoid allowing tensions to escalate into armed conflict.