China under Australian wing in military drill led by US: Report

SYDNEY (AFP) - China has asked to operate under Australian command when it takes part in a major international military exercise led by the United States later this year, a report said on Friday.

Beijing's reported decision comes as Australia leads the arduous Indian Ocean search for missing Malaysia Airlines jet MH370 which was carrying 153 Chinese when it vanished.

The Sydney Morning Herald said it understood that the request from China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) was expressed through defence channels last week, without quoting any sources.

Until recent years, China rarely took part in international military exercises and the newspaper said it was the first time the PLA would operate under Western command in such a drill.

Australia's Defence Minister David Johnston would not comment on the Chinese position but has welcomed China's involvement in the Rim of the Pacific exercise which involves more than 20 nations.

"China has a central role to play in contributing to regional stability," his office said in a statement.

"We welcome the positive contributions it has made to date, and look forward to continuing to work together to enhance mutual understanding and facilitate transparency, and build trust throughout the region."

The RIMPAC exercise will be led by the US and involve more than 25,000 personnel. In the previous RIMPAC in 2012, Australia led the maritime component of the war game, coordinating some 40 ships and six submarines.

It is not known which countries besides the US will take leadership roles this year, but nations taking part include China's traditional rival Japan.

Asked about the report, Beijing's foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei referred inquiries to the ministry of defence, which did not respond to requests for comment by AFP.

The report comes as Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott prepares for his first visit to China since becoming leader last September, a trip which also includes Japan and South Korea.

China is Australia's biggest trading partner and Mr Abbott is pushing for the completion of a free trade deal with the Asian giant but ties have been complicated by Canberra's opposition to China's air defence zone over East China Sea islands claimed by Beijing and Tokyo.

Australia summoned China's ambassador to voice opposition to the Air Defence Identification Zone, earning a strong rebuke from Beijing.

The United States invited China to take part in RIMPAC in 2012 as it tried to reassure Beijing over its strategic "pivot" to the Pacific.

The latest round of the international maritime exercises, described by the US Navy as the world's largest, will take place in July around the Hawaiian Islands.

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