China’s absence in Rimpac maritime war exercise benefits no one, least of all America
Zhou Bo says the US snub will in no way impede China’s military development. Instead, it has deprived both militaries of a needed opportunity to practise together, to avert potential incidents, and raised the political temperature between the two rival powers
Exercise Rimpac, the world’s largest biennial international maritime warfare exercise, held off Hawaii from June through July, is without China this year. The US decision to disinvite China to the Rim of the Pacific drill was announced in May and mentioned by US Secretary of Defence James Mattis at the Shangri-La Dialogue held in early June in Singapore. The decision was based on what the US sees as Beijing’s militarisation of islands in the South China Sea.
Does Rimpac matter for China? The answer is: not really.
Chinese naval vessels participated in Rimpac in 2014 and 2016, but were only allowed to take part in the humanitarian part of the exercise, such as counter-piracy, disaster relief and onboard inspections. These activities are not professionally challenging for the Chinese navy, which has performed similar drills quite often, either by itself or with other countries, including the US.
The restrictions on operations were made in accordance with a bill passed in 2000, which does not allow exchanges between the US military and the People’s Liberation Army in areas other than humanitarian operations, for fear that any exchanges beyond these could contribute to the PLA’s warfighting capabilities and create a national security risk.
This is narcissism. Neither Western arms embargoes nor any American restrictions has proven capable of deterring the awesome progress of the PLA, especially in the past two decades.
Watch: President Xi Jinping’s military plans
A report published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in February cited China’s J-20 stealth combat aircraft and the PL-15 air-to-air missile as examples of how the US and its allies are starting to lose air dominance. It also said that “since 2000, China has built more submarines, destroyers, frigates and corvettes than Japan, South Korea and India combined”, and “the total amount of new warships launched by China in just the last four years is significantly greater than the entire French navy itself”.
The PLA, apart from its own increasingly sophisticated exercises often held off China’s coast, is also conducting more and more joint exercises with other countries. But the most valuable ones are those held with member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), especially Russia.
Since 2002, when China held its first joint exercise with Kyrgyzstan, the SCO member states have taken part in almost annual exercises. In 2005, about 10,000 troops from China and Russia gathered in Shandong peninsula to practise air and naval blockades, an amphibious assault, and occupying a region.
In 2016 and 2017, China and Russia held computer-assisted missile defence drills. Their joint exercises in the Mediterranean and the South China Sea were taken in the West as an alarming sign that the two countries are more willing to take care of each other’s security concerns.
Watch: Chinese military conducts a cross-service drill in June 2018
By disinviting the Chinese navy to Rimpac, the US has not necessarily benefited. First, it loses a routine chance to observe the PLA’s professionalism and technological advances. Secondly, it loses a good opportunity to practise good airmanship and seamanship with the Chinese navy, as set out in the memorandum of understanding on the “rules of behaviour for safety of air and maritime encounters”, which the two countries signed in 2014 to head off potentially dangerous conflict.
In fact, the top priority in the China-US military-to-military relationship is crisis management. In 2017, a total of five ships of the Seventh Fleet of the US Navy collided with other vessels at different times and in different areas, resulting in the death of 17 American officers and sailors.
This raises two questions. First, how could the strongest navy in the world behave so unprofessionally?
Second, if a Chinese naval vessel meets such an “unprofessional” American naval vessel in an unplanned encounter, how can the Chinese commander distinguish between deliberate provocation and bad seamanship on the American side?
A worst-case scenario is an American warship colliding with a Chinese warship, say, in the South China Sea.
Watch: China redeploys missile systems in South China Sea
This is not impossible. A Chinese J-8 fighter and an American EP-3 aircraft collided in 2001 and the Chinese pilot died. It was not the only stand-off that has occurred; Chinese and American ships have been involved, too.
The value of joint exercises with the US is more political than military: to indicate that the two giants are still able to “cooperate wherever possible”, as Mattis would say.
However, this is easier said than done, especially at a time when the current US security strategy regards China as one of America’s top strategic competitors and a trade war between the two countries is raging. During President Xi Jinping’s meeting with Mattis, Xi said he hoped that the military-to-military relationship could become a stabiliser in bilateral ties.
The fact that Beijing still invited Mattis to visit China after the US withdrew its invitation to China to attend Rimpac 2018 demonstrates both goodwill and self-confidence on the Chinese part.
If one good turn really deserves another, the question is: will the US invite China to attend 2020 Rimpac? Let’s wait and see.
Zhou Bo is an honorary fellow with the PLA Academy of Military Science in China