Ships and submarines participating in the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2012 exercise are seen underway in close formation during the exercise on July 27. (Chief MCS Keith Devinney / Navy)
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SAN DIEGO — The next iteration of the biannual Rim of the Pacific military exercises could include China's navy, a move the top U.S. commander in the Pacific said Wednesday is "the right thing to do."
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, traveling in China as part of a trip to Asia, told reporters in Beijing the Navy will invite China to send a ship to participate in RIMPAC 2014.
"Our fundamental goal is to build a U.S.-China military-to-military relationship that is healthy, stable, reliable, continuous and transparent," Panetta said at a joint press conference with Gen. Liang Guanglie, China's defense minister.
Adm. Sam Locklear, who heads U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii, said he had recommended that Panetta invite China to RIMPAC, the world's largest multi-national maritime exercise.
"I hope that they bring a ship, and I hope that they bring a crew ready to learn and to be interoperable," said Locklear, speaking with reporters after a breakfast speech to the San Diego Military Affairs Council at Point Loma Naval Base. "I think they will be welcomed by the rest of the international community in the Asia-Pacific as a productive security partner."
Locklear oversaw the 2008 RIMPAC exercises while he commanded San Diego-based 3rd Fleet. "This had been a concern to the Chinese, that they had not been invited" for this year's exercise, he said. Twenty-two nations joined in the war games held off Hawaii — it was the largest RIMPAC so far — and the training exercises included a focus on humanitarian and disaster relief operations that have garnered much interest among Chinese officials.
Locklear said having China participate in any way is a good next step. Military officials long have complained about China's lack of transparency, particularly about their large defense force, even as it has become a major global economic power. "This is really a country of contradictions," he told the San Diego audience, describing its "walled-in society" from his travels there. "They are going to have to come out behind their walls."
"Their military has to reach out more to the militaries in the region. I think that they don't think they are not transparent," Locklear said, speaking with reporters. "So bringing them into the international security environment in a way that allows them to be comfortable to be operating with other partners and neighbors in the region ... will help them better understand what we mean about them being more transparent."
China's participation in a U.S.-China anti-piracy exercise, held in the Gulf of Aden earlier this month, is a "good step," he said, and he hopes that willingness to join with the U.S. will continue.
"Our alternatives are, if we don't do it, we would potentially allow them to isolate themselves in ways that wouldn't be good for the security environment," he said.
The Pacific Command is looking at expanding engagement and exchanges with other countries, including India and Indonesia, which come as the U.S. turns more attention to the Asia-Pacific region in a major rebalancing of its military forces shifting from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The rebalancing is "not just a military rebalance," Locklear said. "We are going to revitalize the alliances that we have in the Asia-Pacific," home to five major treaty partners, and "grow additional partnerships."
"We are going to seek a long-term strategic partnership with India," he said. "And I think there are good possibilities that we will move towards a partnership arrangement with China as well. I think that is in the best interest of the global security environment."
U.S. officials have insisted the rebalancing of forces, which includes new deployments and rotations of troops overseas to Australia, is not directed to counter China's rise, and they say it won't include new foreign permanent bases.
"We are not really looking for additional bases anywhere in the Asia Pacific," Locklear said. "We are looking for opportunities to partner with our friends and allies in ways that allow a certain level of burden sharing. We both have mutual interests, if we can agree to operate from their bases, with their forces, in increasing multilateral forums that what you have seen in the past."
The initial deployment to Australia began this spring with 250 Hawaii-based Marines, who trained with Australian troops from an army base in Darwin. The next unit is expected to rotate next spring, spending about six months in Australia training with local forces.
Locklear said he expects the U.S. rotational force, which will grow to about 2,500 in a Marine air-ground task force, won't just stay in Australia but will do other operations in the Asia-Pacific. "Now that's the plan," he said, adding, "there won't be any permanent basing of Marines in Australia. It'll be a rotational, in-and-out, participating in training, bilateral and multilateral training in the region."