RIMPAC 2014, was a little while ago now (it took place between June 26 and August 1, 2014), but even now it is worth to take a closer look at some aspects of this maritime military exercise. For example, the participation of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
China has been attending as an observer at RIMPAC since 1998, but this year PLAN for the first time took an active part in some of the exercises. Five warfare areas were accessible to them: drills on surface warfare (limited to surface gunnery), counter-piracy, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and military medicine, search and rescue as well as dive and salvage involved in explosive ordnance disposal (Shirley A Kan, “US-China Military Contacts: Issues for Congress“, Congressional Research Service, July 29, 2014, S. 14). The Chinese delegation included a Type 903 Supply Vessel (Qiandaohu), a Type 054A missile frigate (Yueyang), a Type 052C destroyer (Haikou), a Type 920 hospital ship (Peace Ark) and a total of 1,100 personnel.
With the invitation and the military-to-military engagements, the US hoped for a trust-building effect, increasing mutual transparency and improving mutual understanding. In addition, with such gestures, the US wants to urge China to take on more responsibility in securing international waters, for example in the fight against piracy. Whether the US hopes will be fulfilled in the long term remains doubtful.
Dean Cheng, a Senior Research Fellow at the Asian Studies Center at the The Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation criticised China’s active involvement in the exercise. Although, with respect to intelligence gathering, the Chinese only participated in low risk exercises and the US Navy took additional measures to safeguard against Chinese intelligence, it’s obvious that the Chinese’s intelligence benefited in any way from the Navy’s active participation. “If they have a frigate, or even a hospital ship, in the middle of that exercise, the hospital ship is going to be staffed by intelligence officers” (Cheng quoted in Phil Stewart, “China To Attend U.S. Naval Drills For First Time Ever, Participation In RIMPAC Limited To Less Sensitive Exercises“, Huffinton Post, 22.05.2013). On the other hand, active participation of PLAN doesn’t bring any obvious advantages for the Americans, because conversely the Chinese military is not interested in increasing transparency. Here also cultural differences play an important role: for the Chinese, it is difficult to understand why they should let the US – a stronger military power – see their cards. “Transparency is a western conception while ‘keeping secret’ is part of the Chinese culture.” (Zhou Bo, “Understanding China’s Military Transparency“, China-US Focus, July 18, 2013).
Already a previous American transparency offensive in another area had produced no results. In spring 2014, a briefing was carried out for Chinese military leaders on the emerging doctrine of the Pentagon to combat cyber attacks against the US, and the use of cyber technologies with respect to potential adversaries – including China. Here, too, the Americans hoped – in vain – that the Chinese would reciprocate and hold a similar transparent briefing. Regarding the subsequent visit of US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, US Rear Admiral John Kirby, Chief spokesman for the Department of Defense of the United States commented that “[the defense secretary] is going to stress to the Chinese that we in the military are going to be as transparent as possible, and we want the same openness and transparency and restraint from them.” (David E. Sanger, “U.S. Tries Candor to Assure China on Cyberattacks“, The New York Times, April 6, 2014). At least on his trip to China – at Washington’s request – Hagel was able, as the first foreigner to visit the Chinese aircraft carrier “Liaoning“.
As far as confidence-building measures are concerned, China insulted the US-Americans and the other participants by turning up with an uninvited Type 815 Dongdiao-class intelligence collection vessel at RIMPAC. This “Spy Ship” is one of the three most advanced that PLAN possesses. Nevertheless, this unfriendly gesture must not be overstated, because even if China had not actively participated in the exercise, this “Spy Ship” would most likely still have appeared (at any rate a similar ship was observed during the 2012 practice).
The AGI [(Auxiliary General Intelligence ship)] operated in our exclusive economic zone but stayed outside our territorial waters, which accords with international law. I don’t have any issue with the AGI being there, nor with China’s right to have it there. My only issue is that it seems odd that they would bring an intelligence collector when we have invited them to participate and they have accepted our invitation. — Admiral Harry Harris, the Commander of the United States Pacific Fleet cited in Greg Sheridan, “China’s Military Provocation in the Pacific an Accident Waiting to Happen“, The Australian, 09.08.2014.
Contacts between civil and military officials from different States are in principle always something positive, and build mutual understanding (see the positive comment from the Australian Rear Admiral Simon Cullen, Deputy Director of RIMPAC’s Joint Task Force in the video above). But whether greater transparency of the US armed forces towards the Chinese armed forces is really profitable for the US must be critically examined. It seems at best that China is very selective in implementing similar transparency raising measures, such as Hagel’s visit to the “Liaoning”. Whether China will be invited to actively participate in RIMPAC in 2016 is yet to be determined.
Andrew S. Erickson and Emily de La Bruyere, “China’s RIMPAC Maritime-Surveillance Gambit“, The National Interest, 29.07.2014.