A Chinese warship will take part in naval training drills off the coast of Darwin this year despite the prolonged tensions in the bilateral relationship between Beijing and Canberra.

The Australian Financial Review can reveal a Chinese frigate will participate in Exercise Kakadu in September, the Australian navy’s major biennial series of war games that brings together fleets and thousands of personnel from Asia and Pacific nations.

Defence Minister Marise Payne confirmed China was among 27 nations invited to participate in the exercises.

“There are no plans for China to participate in live-fire activities. China is expected to participate in a range of activities including passage exercises, inter-ship communications and replenishment activities, and sea-training manoeuvres,” Senator Payne said.

“The government is committed to maintaining a long-term constructive relationship with China, founded on shared interests and mutual respect.

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“Australia and China have built a productive defence relationship that enhances mutual understanding, facilitates transparency and builds trust.”

This year is the first time China will participate in Exercise Kakadu, although personnel from the Australian Defence Force and People’s Liberation Army have exercised side-by-side in the past.

Australia’s decision not to rescind the invitation to China stands in stark contrast to the Trump administration, which in May excluded Chinese participation in the massive Rim of the Pacific, or RIMPAC, drills off Hawaii because of its ongoing militarisation of the South China Sea.

China’s involvement in the exercises comes while ties between Australia and China are at a low ebb, with Beijing angry over the Turnbull government’s foreign interference laws and Australia concerned about South China Sea disputes and China’s Belt and Road Initiative as a vehicle to increase its regional influence.

Chinese ambassador Cheng Jingye warned in June “bias and bigotry” was poisoning ties, while Australian ministers’ attempts to visit China have been stymied and dates for visits for Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop yet to be locked in.

There have also been moments of military tension. In June, a Chinese vessel believed to be a spy ship docked next to HMAS Adelaide in Fiji while the Australian navy conducted a goodwill visit to the South Pacific.

However, Chief of the Defence Force Angus Campbell spoke at a function hosted by the Chinese embassy in Canberra on Monday marking the 91st anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army.  

Chance to learn about weapons

Australian Strategic Policy Institute executive director Peter Jennings said the Turnbull government would want to interpret Chinese participation as a sign that the strain in bilateral ties was easing but it served Beijing’s purposes to gain better knowledge of western militaries and be seen as a major player.

He added it showed that China did not just think about Australia in economic terms, but also military.

“They have an interest to see what they can find out about the characteristics of weapons and sensors,” he said.

Mr Jennings said he felt Australia should follow the US lead and cut back military ties with China to show that its placement of military assets on disputed territories in the South China came at a cost.

“China is never punished for the consequences of its actions,” he said.

The head of the University of Canberra’s National Security Institute, former army chief Peter Leahy, said Chinese involvement was a positive sign.

“I don’t see anything wrong with it all,” he told the Financial Review.

“I would keep talking to them and looking for opportunities to work together, particularly around a code of conduct [to manage South China Sea disputes] because if a crisis does appear, better to have some relationships with China than none.”

Lowy Institute Senior Fellow Euan Graham said both Australia and China felt value in maintaining military ties despite the current tensions elsewhere at a political and diplomatic level.

“I think it is a sign the military-to-military relationship remains important to both sides but wouldn’t take it as a bellwether of a broader shift in the relationship,” he said.

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