For the first time ever Chinese warships are taking part in the world’s largest naval drills: the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC), biannual US-led training of Asia-Pacific regional navies traditionally conducted off the Hawaiian Islands since 1971.
RIMPAC will last for over a month, from June 26 to August 1.
The ongoing drill involves 47 surface ships, six submarines, over 200 aircraft, and 25,000 troops from 22 countries.
Originally, the invitation to take part in RIMPAC was sent by then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in 2012. China accepted the invitation in 2013, but due to legal restrictions the Chinese role in the drills is limited to relief operation training.
The official website of RIMPAC suggests that the Chinese task force participating in the drills is likely to be the second-largest there – after the US.
Beijing has sent four ships (missile destroyer Haikou, the missile frigate Yueyang, the supply ship Qiandaohu and the hospital ship Peace Ark) with two helicopters aboard, a commando and diving units - altogether 1,100 servicemen.
The Chinese and American navies cooperate on rare occasions and they invariably practice interaction in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Military relations between Beijing and Washington also involve exchanging military officers for academic studies.
Nevertheless, Chinese media has a habit of criticizing RIMPAC as
a US-led effort to isolate China regionally.
Although the US is officially repositioning the majority of its navy to the Asia-Pacific by 2020, Washington is interested in transparency in military-to-military relations with Beijing.
An experience of real interaction between the US Navy and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is a good insurance against possible misunderstandings between the two militaries in the future.
“It benefits both countries and helps communications. It's a win-win situation,” a US defense official told Reuters.
“While China and the United States have a vast array of joint interests, certainly there do exist disagreements," China's Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun was quoted as saying, yet stressing that China's participation in RIMPAC serves as an example that Beijing is interested in good military ties with the US, while certain politicians in Washington tend to exaggerate China’s military threat.
A lot has changed since Panetta took the decision that further exclusion of China from RIMPAC would look discriminatory and invited Beijing to send ships to Hawaii.
The last year has been marked with a number of scandals erupting between China and its neighbors over Beijing’s territorial claims for various groups of islands in the East China Sea. The opponents of Beijing in these territorial disputes are practically all Washington’s old allies in the Pacific region: Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan.
Both Japan and the Philippines are taking part in RIMPAC-2014, so Chinese sailors will have to interact with their possible adversaries thousands of kilometers away from their home bases.
Either way, participation in RIMPAC is quite profitable for Beijing. Observing the actions of the US and its allies could add valuable experience to PLAN and strengthen the Chinese Navy’s growing capabilities.
“They will learn from observing us and the other participants, and they will not only learn about our capabilities, they will also learn how to perform things more efficiently or effectively, whereas they probably don't have much to teach us in that regard,” said Roger Cliff, an analyst at Washington's Atlantic Council think tank.
Austin Strange, a researcher at the US Naval War College's China Maritime Studies Institute told Reuters that “RIMPAC and China's participation is unlikely to directly impact peace in the Asia-Pacific region.” This is because the Chinese Navy is getting a chance to demonstrate its increased capabilities to other nations, while at the same time getting acquainted with other navies’ capabilities.
Another expert, Oriana Mastro, an assistant professor of security studies at Washington's Georgetown University, was of the opinion that “dialogue will not successfully convince the Chinese to rethink what they consider to be national interests.”