China has for the first time joined Australia’s largest annual sea and air military drills known as Kakadu 2018, involving 27 countries, including key rivals the US, Japan, South Korea and India.

Commanders from the participating nations gathered in the northern Australian port city of Darwin on Saturday to discuss plans for the exercises that began Friday with more than 3,000 troops, 24 ships and submarines as well as 21 aircraft taking part in the naval maneuvers.

China has reportedly dispatched a Navy frigate to take part in navigation and refueling drills. It will not, however, participate in live-fire exercises in the Australia-led international maneuvers.

Commander of Australian Fleet, Rear Admiral Jonathan Mead, emphasized that China can help establish a mechanism for maritime collaboration when it unites with other countries.

“All our nations are bounded by the seas and we all know that our economic prosperity is inherently linked to the freedom of movement and security on, below and above the world’s oceans,” Mead said.

“The very thing we’re dependent on has no boundaries,” he added. “From the smallest island nations to the largest global super powers, we all prosper from greater maritime security built on the foundation of agreed rules for how all nations behave at sea.”

The development comes as relations between Australia and China hit a new low after Canberra passed laws aimed at foiling what it alleged as Chinese influence in its domestic affairs as well as for China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.

However, Australia stuck with an invitation it issued China last September, a sign analysts said hinted at a thawing in relations. The drills will wrap up on September 14.

Australia has censured Beijing for building and militarizing man-made islands in the South China Sea.

It extended an invitation for China to join the drill, in an apparent bid to ease tensions over Beijing’s maritime assertiveness.

“Respect for freedom of navigation must be maintained by all nations, particularly through our complex area,” the Australian commander further underlined.

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