by Robert M. Farley
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) has accepted a US invitation to attend the RIMPAC (Pacific Rim) 2014 exercises recently.
The extent of Chinese participation is not yet fully known, but will most likely involve exercises associated with disaster relief and maintenance of the maritime commons.
This will mark the PLA Navy’s first participation in RIMPAC.
The US decision to invite China, and the Chinese decision to accept, are both unequivocally good news. The PLA Navy and the US Navy are the two largest navies on the Pacific Rim, with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force a close third.
At RIMPAC 2012, 11 navies sent ships, including a contingent from the Russian Pacific Fleet. Several other navies sent observation and special operations teams.
The RIMPAC 2014 exercises come at a critical time for maritime relations in East Asia. Hostile rhetoric between North Korea and the US has reached a high point over the last several weeks. At the same time, tensions between China, Japan, and several Southeast Asian nations over the control of offshore islands have continued to grow.
Chinese participation at RIMPAC should facilitate better communication between the PLA Navy, the US Navy, and regional navies.
Given recent tensions, laying out avenues for improved communication and for trust building can only help avoid unnecessary conflict.
The concept behind RIMPAC rests on two foundations. First, maritime challenges extend beyond any one nation’s littoral.
Second, effective multilateral operations require the development of relationships and communications procedures before a crisis happens.
Exercises and RIMPAC help develop relationships and practices that make it easier for national navies to cooperate in crisis situations, and to coordinate standard maritime maintenance responsibilities.
RIMPAC has steadily expanded beyond close US allies. While RIMPAC does involve some high intensity military exercises, many of which the PLA Navy will not participate in, the rules will apparently limit China’s RIMPAC participation to missions such as disaster relief and anti-piracy. This will build on anti-piracy exercises that the PLA Navy and the US Navy have conducted in the Gulf of Aden.
Tensions notwithstanding, the biggest maritime challenges of the past decade have involved disaster relief.
The PLA Navy can surely learn from hard-won US experience in maritime disaster relief operations, as the US Navy helped spearhead relief activities in the wake of the 2004 tsunami, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and the 2011 Tohoku earthquake.
The aviation and amphibious capabilities of the PLA Navy have increased dramatically since 2004, but the experience remains critically short. Participation at RIMPAC will give the PLA Navy access to the expertise of foreign navies in humanitarian assistance.
If the past is any guide, in the next decade, the Pacific Rim will certainly suffer from devastating maritime disasters.
Climate change, combined with an increasing proportion of the region’s population relocating to the littoral, means that naval forces will be pressed to engage in humanitarian operations whether prepared or not.
To the extent that China wishes to play a constructive role in these operations, it will have to develop effective capabilities as quickly as possible.
RIMPAC is a good first step toward integrating the PLA Navy into regional disaster preparedness, and toward building the communications linkages, trust, and relationships necessary to conduct effective multilateral relief operations.
Participation in RIMPAC will not resolve political differences between the US, China, and the regional navies of East Asia. However, it can contribute to communication, trust building, and the development of critical maritime skills and practices.
For the millions living in the Pacific Rim littoral, this could someday mean the difference between life and death.