The U.S. military’s largest international naval exercise in the Pacific begins this week with China’s navy taking part for the first time by sending four warships—more than any participating nation other than the United States.
A total of 49 surface ships, six submarines, more than 200 aircraft, and 25,000 military personnel will take part. Rim of the Pacific—or RIMPAC, as the exercise is known—is held every two years and formally begins June 26. It will continue through Aug. 1 in waters around Hawaii.
A total of 21 Navy warships are taking part, including the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and an array of guided missile destroyers and cruisers.
China, for its part, is sending three warships and a naval hospital ship—the largest foreign contingent after the United States.
The role of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in RIMPAC is raising concerns among some officials and experts who voiced concerns that the United States’ chief adversary in Asia will gain access to valuable warfighting secrets during the maneuvers.
Rep. J. Randy Forbes, (R., Va.), a senior House Armed Services Committee member, said he is opposed to allowing China to take part.
“Joint military exercises should be reserved for allies, partners, and other countries that demonstrate an interest in making a positive contribution to regional security,” Forbes, chairman of the sea power and force projection subcommittee, said.
“Given Beijing’s belligerent behavior towards its neighbors across the Asia Pacific in recent months, it gives me pause they would be rewarded with the opportunity to participate in such a prestigious exercise,” he said.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on oversight, also said allowing the Chinese to take part in the exercises would undermine U.S. security.
“Sending Chinese warships into the waters with those from democratic nations is like putting icebergs into the North Atlantic—only icebergs will melt when it gets hot,” said Rohrabacher. “Why do we want a potential adversary to catalog our weaknesses?”
China has impinged on freedom of navigation rights in Asia, shown a lack of respect for international law, and increased tensions in the region, Forbes said.
As a result, “Beijing has demonstrated a hostility toward its neighbors and U.S. interests that must be met with real consequences,” he said.
China has raised tensions in Asia by asserting control over international waters, including the South and East China Seas. It set off a dispute with Vietnam recently by conducting oil drilling operations in the South China Sea in waters claimed by Hanoi. Chinese jets also recently flew dangerously close to Japanese jets over the East China Sea. Both Tokyo and Beijing blamed each other for the dangerous aerial encounter.
Additionally, several months ago a Chinese naval ship nearly forced a collision of a U.S. guided missile cruiser in the region.
Many Asian states have grown fearful of China’s growing military power and maritime bullying, and are concerned by the perceived weakness of the United States in the region. Inviting China to join the naval exercises is compounding those fears, analysts say.
Rick Fisher, an expert on China’s military, said allowing the PLAN to take part in the exercise will facilitate Chinese influence operations against the United States by bolstering pro-China elements in Washington. More important, the exercises will provide “an intelligence bonanza” for the PLAN, he said.
China’s military “will be able to watch how the U.S. Navy interacts with its allies, which could be most useful in the event of actual military incidents or conflict,” said Fisher, a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
John Tkacik, a former State Department intelligence official and China affairs specialist, also questioned the wisdom of allowing China to join RIMPAC.
“I'm sure there are good reasons to welcome PLAN participation in RIMPAC, like confidence-building,” Tkacik said. “But to me, it all seems like building the fox's confidence by inviting him to a seminar on protecting the chicken coop.”
For RIMPAC, China dispatched some of its newest warships, including a Type 054A, the PLAN’s first radar-evading stealth frigate, and a Type 052C destroyer, considered the Chinese equivalent of the U.S. Navy’s Aegis destroyers.
The Chinese Aegis is a reminder that, during the 1990s and early 2000s, China stole through espionage key secrets related to the Aegis battle management system, which can track objects in space or on the surface for thousands of miles and was a key strategic advantage for the U.S. military.
The Chinese also are sending a large hospital ship that plans to make visits to South Pacific islands after the naval maneuvers.
Chinese state media have hailed the PLAN participation as a milestone in military-to-military relations, despite the recent U.S. federal indictment of five PLA officers charged with widespread computer hacking against corporate secrets.
Zhang Junshe, an analyst with China’s state-run Naval Institute for Military Academic Studies, said the first Chinese military involvement is an “ice-breaking” event despite Chinese opposition to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, aerial reconnaissance near China’s coasts, and restrictive laws limiting military ties.
The Chinese naval forces will take part in seven training elements, including naval artillery firing, maritime security training, surface ship drills, military medical exchanges, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and diving.
The PLA’s official newspaper that routinely published anti-U.S. military propaganda, gave Chinese participation in RIMPAC a tepid endorsement, saying it will boost U.S.-China military relations toward “maturity and stability.”
Not all media in China are supporting Beijing’s decision to join RIMPAC. Thousands of online postings by nationalistic Chinese criticized China in recent weeks for taking part in the maneuvers.
Typical of some comments were those of Chinese military expert Song Xiaojun who charged that by allowing the PLAN to join RIMPAC, Beijing was complicit in a modern day equivalent of a U.S.-led “canal trade gang”—an organized crime group from the 1700s.
Other online postings criticized Chinese involvement as a “disgrace” and asserted that the communist government had “no backbone” for taking part in foreign military exercises.
Official Chinese propaganda outlets made no mention of the dangerous near-collision between a Chinese naval vessel and the guided missile cruiser USS Cowpens in the South China Sea last December.
The Pentagon criticized the Chinese for allowing the vessel to sail within 100 yards of the Cowpens and stopping, forcing the ship to turn sharply to avoid a collision. The incident could have triggered a shootout between the two navies.
China blamed the Cowpens incident on the United States, claiming the ship had violated a defensive zone near Beijing’s new aircraft carrier that was undergoing sea trials nearby.
RIMPAC and other international exercises are a key element of the new U.S. policy of pivoting to Asia that was based on a Pentagon battle concept developed several years ago called Air Sea Battle. The Air Sea Battle Concept was designed to buildup and coordinate air and naval forces in anticipation of deterring or quickly defeating China in a conflict using bombers and naval forces in long-range strikes.
The concept was launched after military planners realized that China’s development of asymmetric warfare weapons had progressed to the point where the U.S. military strategic advantage in Asia had eroded. The Chinese weapons, called anti-access and area denial arms, include anti-satellite weapons, anti-ship ballistic missiles, submarines, cyber weapons, and other high-tech arms—all designed for a future conflict with the United States or its allies.
However, under the Obama administration’s soft-line military policies, the Air Sea Battle Concept was shifted away from military capabilities toward mainly employing a network of closer alliances and using trade, diplomatic, economic, and other non-military measures to counter China.
The Chinese role in RIMPAC was announced a year ago during the summit between President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jingping in California and reflects the Navy leadership’s conciliatory policies toward China that have mirrored those of the Obama administration.
For example, Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, has sought to play down the threat posed by China’s growing high-technology military forces. He said last year that climate change—not China—poses the greatest threat to the Asia Pacific.
Additionally, last week Adm. Jonathan Greenert told a naval conference that open talk of U.S. efforts to deter and defeat China in a future conflict should be stifled to avoid upsetting Beijing.
Discussing U.S. war fighting efforts openly would “unnecessarily antagonize” the Chinese, Greenert said.
Fisher disagrees and says not discussing the threat from China and possible U.S. responses is “rhetorical disarmament.”
“To his credit, Adm. Greenert has led some important initiatives which may better prepare the United States for conflict with China but this point is very arguable,” Fisher said. “Rhetorical disarmament is a vital step down the road to real disarmament.”
Fisher said no one expects military commanders to outline future war fighting plans. “But it is crucial that they explain how that adversary is threatening U.S. forces and interests,” he said. “This is a key requirement for leadership and a failure to do so will cost American lives.”
Fisher also noted that several decades of military exchanges with China have been one sided, with China gaining access to advanced U.S. military weapons and forces while U.S. military visitors to China are routinely denied access to new and modern Chinese weaponry.
“China's participation in RIMPAC is not going to lead to meaningful relationship based on transparency or cooperation, especially as long as China's primary goal is to displace U.S. power in Asia and then beyond,” Fisher said.