Chinese, French warships stage joint 'non-conventional security' drill
BEIJING (AFP) Mar 16, 2004
Chinese and French warships carried out a joint exercise Tuesday, marking the largest naval drill China has ever conducted with a foreign country, state media and officials said.

The exercise, coming at the end of a five-day visit by French naval vessels to China, was aimed at improving capabilities in the field of "non-conventional security," according to the Chinese foreign ministry.

"In recent years, the development of the relations between the two countries and the two militaries has been growing smoothly," ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told a regular briefing.

The exercise came just four days ahead of crucial presidential elections on Taiwan, watched carefully by China which is in constant fear of separatist sentiments on the island.

However, observers said there was almost certainly no link between the two events, despite China's record of exerting pressure on Taiwan in previous polls through military drills in waters near the island.

Organized a considerable time ago, the Sino-French exercise has "no relations at all" with the elections to be held in Taiwan Saturday, a diplomatic source indicated.

The two sides practiced flag signal exchanges, refueling and search-and-rescue operations, China's state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

They also landed helicopters on board each other's vessels, giving pilots the opportunity to exchange souvenirs, according to Xinhua.

The exercises, jointly directed by Zhang Panhong, chief of the general staff of the North China Sea Fleet of the People's Liberation Army Navy, and Louis De Contenson, navy commander of the French Pacific Military Region, lasted about eight hours and involved about 700 seamen, Xinhua said.

The drill is so far the largest of its kind held by the Chinese and any foreign navy, Xinhua noted.

The French naval fleet, which arrived in the eastern port city of Qingdao Friday, included the anti-submarine-warfare destroyer Latouche-Treville, based in Brest, and light frigate Commandant Birot, based in Toulon.

The Chinese vessels taking part in the drill included guided missile destroyer Harbin and fuel tanker Hongze Lake.

It was the 12th visit by French warships to China, including Hong Kong, since 1978, and the fourth to Qingdao, the base of the North China Sea Fleet.