The navies of China and Russia plan to hold joint drills in the Mediterranean Sea for the first time in mid-May, China’s Defense Ministry announced Thursday, in the latest expansion of the growing informal partnership between the two militaries. The exercises also illustrate China’s continued engagement with Russia at a time when Moscow has been shunned by much of the international community over its support for separatist rebels in Ukraine. The “Joint Sea 2015” exercises will feature nine surface ships, including three from China that are currently taking part in anti-piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia, ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng told a monthly news conference.

The drills involve rescue, resupply and other missions, including the firing of live ammunition, Geng said. “The purpose of the exercise is to strengthen the friendly exchanges between the two sides … and to improve the capability of the two navies to deal with maritime threats,” Geng said. He said the drills did not target any third parties and were not a response to fighting and instability in places such as Libya and Syria, he said. China and Russia frequently align on major international issues and Beijing has refused to join in the condemnations and economic sanctions leveled against Moscow for its backing of the Ukrainian rebels. In a further show of support, Chinese President Xi Jinping plans to attend commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Moscow on May 9. Most Western leaders are staying away from the event featuring a massive military parade, in which a 112-strong honor guard from the Chinese army, navy and air force will also take part. MORE