China’s RIMPAC Debut: What’s in It for America?

"Despite concerns that Beijing’s participation constitutes a net loss for Washington, the U.S. can in fact derive substantial value from including China while building global maritime security partnerships."

As tensions simmer in the East and South China Seas, clouds of doubt overhang China’s presence at Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2014. The world’s largest international maritime exercise, it is hosted biannually by the U.S. Navy. But despite concerns that Beijing’s participation constitutes a net loss for Washington, the U.S. can in fact derive substantial value from including China while building global maritime security partnerships. This “big tent” approach demonstrates willingness to weather regional turbulence to advance a longer-term push for Beijing to recalibrate its contributions to global maritime security to levels commensurate with its growing power.

After a 16-day transpacific voyage beginning on China’s eastern shores, a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) four-ship flotilla docked at Pearl Harbor on June 24,. Running from June 26-August 1, RIMPAC includes a collection of 49 surface vessels, six submarines, over 200 aircraft, and over 25,000 personnel from 22 countries. 1,100 Chinese personnel and four ships are participating, including missile destroyer Haikou, missile frigate Yueyang, supply ship Qiandaohu, and hospital ship Peace Ark, as well as two helicopters, a commando unit, a diving squad, and a medical team. Notably, China’s task force is the largest of any nation after America’s. It first rendezvoused in Guam with ships from the navies of Singapore, Brunei (another first-time participant) and the U.S., with whom it then sailed into Pearl Harbor.

China’s task force will be moving smartly throughout the six-week exercise. Its activities encompass light weapons and artillery fire, damage control, integrated exercises, supply sealifting, surface platform drills, coordinated interceptions and landings, joint warship and helicopter assaults, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, diving, medical exchanges and cultural activities. The initial portion of China’s participation, from June 25-July 8, reportedly includes mostly “soft” activities, from press conferences to basketball games. From July 9-30, it will focus on maritime drills. As has become customary practice before, during and after their anti-piracy escorts off Somalia, PLAN ships will conduct friendly visits following its RIMPAC participation. After a port call in San Diego, the flotilla will conduct medical operations in Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, and Papua New Guinea.

For China, the manifold benefits of RIMPAC participation are plain. First, strong performances off Hawaii will burnish the PLAN’s domestic and international reputation as a dynamic, world-class navy. Second, as with Gulf of Aden anti-piracy, other than providing a rare window to showcase maritime prowess cooperatively, RIMPAC offers a useful platform for China to learn about the technologies, equipment, personnel, tactics, and procedures employed by the world’s leading navies. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) forecasts “China will probably build multiple aircraft carriers over the next 15 years” in addition to the 2012-commissioned Liaoning. As a result, surface vessels such as frigates and destroyers—indispensable components of any future carrier strike groups—desperately need blue water experience. That RIMPAC has traditionally involved deck aviation operations certainly adds an extra layer of enticement for China. Third, given the uncertain future of Somali anti-piracy operations, engaging in the U.S.-hosted exercise offers particularly useful pretext for deploying a variety of PLAN platforms, equipment, and servicemen outside of East Asia to accumulate experience and sharpen skills, many of which are applicable to missions closer to home. Finally, given the diplomatic damage wrought by Beijing’s increasingly assertive tactics in the East and South China Seas, RIMPAC is the PLAN’s latest “Far Seas foil” that exudes cooperation and progressiveness, temporarily offsetting destructive themes surrounding island and maritime disputes. While China certainly cares about its image abroad, it appears willing to pay image costs to uphold and further its self-described core national interests, including territorial claims. For cooperative international platforms such as RIMPAC, the lack of an “image-interest” tradeoff makes participation a no-brainer for China.

America’s desire for China’s RIMPAC participation appears more complex. “Sunk costs” surely factor in. China’s participation has been years in the making, the result of considerable sweat equity invested by American and Chinese officials. Washington’s formal invitation to Beijing was delivered by then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in 2012. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus reiterated America’s welcome during his visit to Beijing in November 2012. Yet these gestures were the fruit of protracted efforts—eclipsed by strategic tensions on multiple occasions—to engage China more directly at sea.