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U.S. prepares for awkward military engagement with China in Hawaii

The amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu transits the San Diego Bay on Tuesday on its way to Hawaii, where it will participate in the multi-national Rim of the Pacific exercise. For the first time, China’s navy will have a significant presence at the event. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kenan O’Connor)

The U.S. Navy has dispatched numerous ships to Hawaii as it prepares for Rim of the Pacific 2014, the world’s largest international maritime exercise. It will involve 49 surface ships and six submarines from 23 countries this year, but the inclusion of one — China — will get an inordinate amount of attention.

The People’s Liberation Army of China will participate in the exercise for the first time, sending ships that include the missile destroyer Haikou, the missile frigate Yueyang, the oiler Qiandaohu and the hospital ship Peace Ark. The Chinese were invited to join two years ago by Adm. Samuel Locklear, the chief of U.S. Pacific Command, and will do so now as Chinese President Xi Jinping pushes an overhaul and expansion of the Chinese military.

But the engagement, which starts June 26, comes at an awkward time following a series of controversial moves by China within the last year. That could complicate an already highly unusual level of engagement between China, the United States and U.S. allies at RIMPAC, even if senior military officials in China and the United States have had discussions for years.

Earlier this month, Japanese and Chinese leaders traded barbs over how close Chinese jets flew to a Japanese aircraft over the East China Sea. Japanese officials said that two Chinese SU27 fighters had buzzed Japanese planes, flying as close as 30 meters away. Beijing rejected that, releasing video that it said showed Japanese planes deliberately flying close to the Chinese jets.

“China strongly opposes and protests Japan’s act of ignoring the facts, shifting the blame onto the victim, aggressive slandering and hyping the so-called China threat,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement.

The close call came in an area where China unexpectedly and unilaterally established an air defense identification zone in November, a diplomatic show of aggression that rattled Japan and other countries in the region. U.S. officials expressed disapproval for the way in which it was sprung, but ultimately signaled a willingness to allow China to keep it as long as it backed off a demand that all aircraft traveling through it must check in first.

China also has been locked in a heated disagreement with Vietnam, a growing U.S. friend, over whether a Chinese oil rig should be allowed to operate near the Paracel Islands, in the South China Sea. Vietnamese officials say the rig is operating too close too Vietnam, while China contends that the company is simply doing its job. Both sides have hurled accusations that there has been boat-ramming on the scene. President Obama called for China and its neighbors to find a peaceful solution to the problem on Friday.

China also has been accused repeatedly of stealing military secrets from the United States, using both computer hacking and espionage as it builds its own military.

But it appears Washington is still pinning its hopes on China’s rise remaining peaceful. In a trip to several Asian countries in April, the president said flatly that the United isn’t interested in containing China, while warning that it must avoid aggression against Japan and other U.S. allies.

“We’re interested in China’s peaceful rise and it being a responsible and powerful proponent of the rule of law,” Obama said, while adding: “In that role, it has to abide by certain norms.”

Chinese’s inclusion in RIMPAC looks like an attempt to bring the Chinese to the table, but it also giving U.S. military officials a rare window into what weapons they are developing. Locklear has raised concerns about both China’s lack of transparency and attempts to stifle movement in international waterways, but said there is plenty on which the two nations can collaborate militarily.

“If you take a look at our relationship as nations, I would say there is a majority of places where we converge with China on issues, the admiral said to me in an interview with Foreign Policy this spring. “Not a vast majority, but a majority. But, there are a number of key areas where we diverge, and that divergence can potentially cause friction. And so the question is, how will that friction be managed.”

UPDATED: June 23, 4:05 p.m.: This post has been updated to clarify the United States’ relationship with Vietnam. There is not a treaty alliance between the countries, but their relationship has been deepening for years and they conduct military exercises together.