After 43 years of watching the world’s largest multinational naval exercises take place off Hawaii, China has the second-largest fleet at the U.S.-led drills this year, offering it a step toward the great-power parity it seeks in the Pacific.
China’s high visibility at the five-week operations underscores a shift in foreign-policy stance away from former leader Deng Xiaoping’s maxim to “hide your brightness, bide your time.” President Xi Jinping is restructuring the military to better enable it to fight wars, and has deployed vessels into areas of the East and South China Seas disputed with neighbors.
The Rimpac drills, as they’re known, offer China and the U.S. a non-confrontational opportunity to learn more about each other’s capabilities, a contrast with encounters that have included a near-collision with an American cruiser in December. While China’s four People’s Liberation Army ships have been welcomed, they have also been kept out of core war games and the 22-nation exercise is led by the U.S. along with allies Australia, Japan and Canada, illustrating the difficulties in forging closer military ties.
“The PLA sending four ships to Rimpac is intended to show China’s growing maritime prowess in the region and its increasing capabilities to handle regional maritime affairs,” Li Jie, a Beijing-based senior researcher at the Chinese Naval Research Institute, said. “It also serves as a subtle warning that the U.S. would be better off to not encourage what would be harmful to Chinese interests in the region.”
People's Liberation Army navy ship Haikou and two smaller boats are shown in the Pacific Ocean off Hawaii during Rim of the Pacific exercises.
China has sent two of its top ships to the Rim of the Pacific exercises from June 26 to Aug. 1: the missile destroyer Haikou and the missile frigate Yueyang. It also dispatched the supply vessel Qiandaohu, the Peace Ark hospital ship, two helicopters and a dive unit.
Secrecy still shrouds much of China’s military hardware, meaning the U.S. may learn more from observing Chinese vessels close up than the other way around, according to Bernard Cole, a former U.S. Navy officer who teaches at the National War College in Washington.
“Just going aboard one of their ships for a cocktail party for a U.S. observer who knows what he’s looking at can be very educational,” Cole said by phone. “It’s familiarization. I don’t want to call it spying.”
China’s only aircraft carrier, the refurbished Liaoning, which was commissioned in September 2012, didn’t join the drills. The U.S. has a total of 21 ships taking part, including the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier.
China won’t participate in combat exercises at the event, Lieutenant Lenaya Rotklein, a public affairs officer for Rimpac, said by e-mail. Before the drills began, China’s navy requested to train for opposed boardings, such as of a hijacked ship, yet the U.S. declined, according to Rotklein. It “was not consistent with the multilateral training objectives” of the task force China is part of, she said.
China will participate with a group of ships from France, Mexico and the U.S. Navy in maritime security operations that include counter-piracy, gunnery and search-and-rescue, she said. On July 10 China participated in a simple gunnery exercise that includes shooting large caliber rounds at a large target known as a “killer tomato” and firing practice at a towed target, she said.
Friend or foe?
The fact China cannot take part in the core exercises “reflects the fact that psychologically the U.S. is still guarded toward China,” said Ni Lexiong, director of the Sea Power and Defense Policy Research Institute at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law. “It’s very hard for the U.S. to make a judgment over whether in the future China will be a friend or an adversary.”
The U.S. National Defense Authorization Act enacted in 1999 prohibits the Secretary of Defense from authorizing military-to-military contact with the PLA if it would create a national security risk due to an inappropriate exposure in certain areas, such as nuclear operations and reconnaissance missions.
The U.S. and China vowed to improve military cooperation during the two-day Strategic and Economic Dialogue between the countries in Beijing that ended July 10. President Xi opened the meeting with a speech saying that any conflict between the two countries would be a disaster for the world.
Five days later the U.S. Navy’s chief of naval operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, visited Beijing for talks with China’s navy commander Wu Shengli, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
Chinese soldiers will train alongside U.S. and Australian troops in Australia for the first time in October, the country’s Defense Minister David Johnston said yesterday after meeting with General Fan Changlong, vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission.
While China’s participation in Rimpac is unlikely to affect its more assertive policy on the South China and East China Seas, it will increase trust with the U.S., Cole said. China’s navy lacks significant international experience, he said.
Involving China will reassure Southeast Asian countries that the U.S. is willing to engage with China and also reduce fears among leaders in Beijing that it seeks to build an anti-China coalition, according to Felix Chang, a senior fellow at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute.
“That, in turn, makes it easier for those Southeast Asian countries to see the U.S. as a positive and stabilizing power in the region,” he said.
The U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific is based on cooperation and collaboration which means it is imperative that navies work together, Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said in a July 1 statement.
“As the world’s economic center of gravity shifts rapidly toward the Indo-Asia-Pacific, we also note the increasing risks in the region,” he said. “I think it’s important to note that by simply attending Rimpac, every nation here is making the bold statement that we must improve multinational military cooperation despite disagreements.”
China has called for the U.S. to not take sides in maritime disputes. At the same time, its navy and coast guard under President Xi have increasingly sought to secure the upper hand in territorial disputes against U.S. allies.
China should maintain an attitude of: on the one hand peace, on the other hand combat, and not to compromise or retreat" -- Colonel Liu Jiangping
In 2012 China successfully assumed control of the Scarborough Shoal, an area previously overseen by the Philippines. Chinese ships and coast guard vessels regularly patrol waters claimed by Japan around disputed islands in the East China Sea.
The Chinese military is keen to use the exercise to demonstrate greater transparency, after being criticized by the U.S., the Chinese Naval Research Institute’s Li said. China can also learn from the U.S. about advanced weaponry technology such as drones, he said.
China shouldn’t think too romantically about military ties with the U.S, Colonel Liu Jiangping wrote in a June 26 editorial in the state-owned Global Times newspaper.
“China should maintain an attitude of: on the one hand peace, on the other hand combat, and not to compromise or retreat,” he wrote. “Only by increasing our military strength and realizing the planned modernization of the military can we increase our bargaining chips in military dialog with the U.S.”