US is using Rimpac to woo Asean and counter its move towards China, but will it work?

Mark J. Valencia says the Rim of the Pacific Exercise from which China was excluded this year is no floating cocktail party but a display of US soft power

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 July, 2018, 1:04pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 July, 2018, 7:54pm

The Rim of the Pacific Exercise (Rimpac) is the world’s largest multilateral military maritime exercise. It is held every two years and is hosted and administered by the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet.

According to the US Indo-Pacific Command, Rimpac “seeks to enhance interoperability between Pacific Rim armed forces, ostensibly as a means of promoting stability in the region to the benefit of all participating nations”.

This sounds rather innocuous. But the reality is that Rimpac is a significant soft power tool in the US military arsenal and is viewed as such by potential adversaries.

Rimpac was created in, and is a creature of, the cold war. The first exercises, in 1971, involved forces from US allies Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK – and they implicitly targeted the Soviet Union.

Over the years, Rimpac expanded its agenda to include exercises that focus more on concerns that appeal to smaller countries in the region – such as humanitarian assistance, search and rescue, anti-terrorism and anti-piracy. Participation increased to include these smaller navies as well as Russia (in 2012) and China (in 2014 and 2016).

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This year’s Rimpac began on June 27 in waters around Hawaii and involves navies from 27 countries, including from Southeast Asia – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. These are all countries the US is trying to woo to its political side vis-à-vis China in the South China Sea.

Indeed, Peter Layton of Australia’s Griffith Asia Institute says that this Rimpac gives these nations a chance to show “passive support” for the US position there with regard to China. But this is a rather simplistic and optimistic interpretation of the rationale for their participation. I argue elsewhere that some of these countries are sliding towards China on these issues – and with good reason. The US is using Rimpac to counter this trend.

Cynical observers see Rimpac’s purpose as reaffirming US hegemony in the Asia-Pacific by implying that participation is support for US policy. It is also an opportunity for the US to demonstrate its military technological superiority as a deterrent while ferreting out weaknesses in other participants.

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In 2014, the US excluded Russia from Rimpac as tensions rose over its conduct with regard to Ukraine. The most recent manifestation of US political use of Rimpac is the rescinding of its invitation to China to participate. The US action made China “lose face” internationally and surely hardened its position.

China was publicly shamed and “disinvited” because of its “continued militarisation of the South China Sea”. According to US Defence Secretary James Mattis, “China’s behaviour is inconsistent with the principles and the purposes of the Rimpac exercise.” Of course, as the host, the US unilaterally defines these “principles and purposes”.

The US rationale for China’s expulsion ignores the fact that all claimants to features in the Spratly Island group have placed military personnel and weapons systems on the features they occupy.

Adding insult to injury, the Indo-Pacific Command belatedly invited Vietnam as a first-time full participant. Vietnam is China’s sometimes enemy and current most vociferous critic of South China Sea issues. The US did so despite the fact Vietnam militarily occupies by far the most features there and has deployed long-range mobile rocket launchers on five of its many military outposts.

The rationale used to exclude China also ignores the significantly enhanced US military presence in the region – which China views as provocative militarisation.

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This US public naming and shaming of China is not an isolated event. Indeed, it comes against a backdrop of rising tensions and deteriorating US-China relations overall – and in the South China Sea in particular.

Retiring Indo-Pacific Command Admiral Harry Harris said on May 30 that “China remains our biggest long-term challenge. Without focused involvement and engagement by the United States and our allies and partners, China will realise its dream of hegemony in Asia.”

His replacement to head the newly renamed Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, wrote that Beijing is now “capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States”.

US actions and statements may well prove counterproductive and lead to a hardening of China’s position and a tit-for-tat approach in the South China Sea

These statements only confirm to China that the new US policy initiative of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” is driven by an American perception of its challenge to the existing US-dominated international order.

Within this framework, the US is proposing – and pushing for – a renewal of the so-called “Quad” – a potential security arrangement among the four large democracies of India, Australia, Japan and the US. China sees this as an effort to contain it. In the face of these statements and actions, China is probably preparing for conflict.

Indeed, the US actions and statements may well prove counterproductive and lead to a hardening of China’s position and a tit-for-tat approach in the South China Sea. China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have agreed on, and are now planning, the first-ever China-Asean maritime exercises to be held later this year in the South China Sea.

China may well imply that Southeast Asian nations’ participation in such exercises demonstrates “passive support” for its position there.

As for Rimpac itself, what some – at their peril – have called “the world’s largest floating cocktail party” is in reality another US soft power political weapon.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China