Rim of the Pacific Exercises (RIMPAC): Thaw in China-US Tensions?

28 Jun, 2014    ·   4529

Dr Vijay Sakhuja says that the PLA Navy’s participation in the RIMPAC can potentially help mend fences between the two countries

Last week, Hawaii witnessed one of the largest assemblies of Navies for the biennial Rim of the Pacific Exercises (RIMPAC) hosted by the Commander, US Pacific Fleet (PACFLT). Nearly 50 warships, half a dozen submarines, over 200 aircraft from Asia, Australia, Europe, Latin America and the US were involved in the exercises. RIMPAC began in 1971 during the Cold War and was targeted against the Soviet Union. Over the years, the participation, philosophy and content of the exercises has changed giving RIMPAC a global flavour.  The interest in RIMPAC has grown steadily from 14 countries participating in 2010, 22 in 2012 and 23 in 2014 which is an encouraging sign. It does not appear to be targeted against any one power and the participants now address a number of maritime security threats and challenges which range from sea lane security to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. 

RIMPAC 2014 witnessed three new entrants- Brunei Darussalam, China and Norway; but Russia, which made its debut in 2012 RIMPAC, was conspicuously absent from this year’s exercises suggesting that the shadow of Russia’s actions in Ukraine had stretched as far as the Pacific.  

Among the new participants, China appears to have attracted maximum attention. Since 2010, the US had been urging China to participate in the RIMPAC. There were a number of reasons for the US to encourage China to join the RIMPAC; first, the US wants to dispel any notion of containment among the Chinese which has been lingering since the 2008 RIMPAC in which China and Russia had been excluded raising speculations that the exercises were targeted against China. 

Second, the US Navy hopes to enhance engagements with the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). There have been a number of incidents at sea between the two forces despite the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) signed in 1998. Significantly, incidents involving the USS Kitty Hawk (1992), EP-3 incident (2001), USS Impeccable (2009) and USS Cowpen (2013) continue to loom large in the minds of the Chinese who feel that the US is challenging China’s rise in the region and its growing naval power. 

Third, the US is encouraging the Chinese side to be more transparent about its military spending, long term naval plans, strategy and intentions in the Asia Pacific region particularly in the South China Sea and the East China Sea which witnessed a number of incidents.  

Fourth, the US Navy hopes to enmesh the Chinese into multilateral naval engagements. It may be mentioned that the PLA Navy is not new to multilateral naval exercises since it has been participating in biennial ‘Aman’ series of naval exercises hosted by the Pakistan Navy. In recent times, it has sent multiple task forces to the Gulf of Aden and actively participated in anti piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. Also, China has proactively engaged other navies during the ADMM Plus exercises in Brunei late last year.  

The Chinese do not appear to be quite impressed by the US overtures partly due to their belief that the US will continue to contain China. Further, they are suspicious of the US motivations and intentions on account of its ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ to the Asia Pacific which involves shifting about 60 per cent of US naval forces in the region by 2020. 

But the Chinese do believe that by excluding themselves from the regional maritime and naval cooperative structures, they may accentuate the ‘China threat’ perception which pervades across the region. In that context, the endorsement of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) agreement on procedures for ‘conduct at sea’ during un-alerted meetings/sightings between warships of the member countries is noteworthy. They see cooperative engagements as opportunities to work together with regional countries to address non-traditional security threats across the maritime commons. 

However, the question still remains whether participation in the RIMPAC would add to transparency (for the US) and dispel containment (for the Chinese).  It would be fair to argue that the RIMPAC is a worthwhile tool for constructive engagement between the PLA Navy and the US Navy which can offer good dividends but to expect it to transform their relationship is rather ambitious. This is also applicable to other participating navies particularly the Japanese and the Indian navies who see the modernization of the Chinese Navy as a threat. 
The PLA Navy’s participation in the RIMPAC may not serve the purpose of cooling tensions in the region, but it can potentially help mend fences between China and the US particularly after US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel’s remarks at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore accusing China of ‘destabilizing’ and the PLA deputy chief of staff counter-accusing Pentagon of ‘stoking fires’ in the region.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Director (Research) Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.