RIMPAC and the Politics of Maritime Engagement

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Almost three weeks ago, the world’s largest naval exercise got underway in the Pacific. RIMPAC, or the Rim of the Pacific exercise, is a U.S. Pacific fleet organized and administered biannual naval drill held off Hawaii, which brings together maritime forces of many Pacific nations. This year, 49 ships and six submarines from 23 nations are taking part in exercises that will last for a duration of over four weeks, spread over two separate sea and harbor exercise programs.

Unsurprisingly, it is China’s participation in the exercises that has attracted the most attention. Even though it is the first time the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA-N) has been invited to the exercises, the scale of its participation is considerable. With four of its premier maritime assets taking part in the exercises, including the destroyer Haikou and hospital ship Ark Peace, China is reportedly fielding the second largest contingent – a presence that belies the subdued image of a first time invitee. Needless to say, maritime observers have been surprised by the development, not least because the PLA-N is popularly perceived as the U.S. Navy’s chief adversary in the Pacific.

Curiously, the invitation to China to participate in the RIMPAC comes in the midst of deepening tensions in the Pacific littorals. In recent weeks, the PLA-N’s aggressive posturing in the South China Sea and the East Sea has led to confrontations with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam. Many of these nations are close allies of the U.S. and are said to have opposed the plan to invite China. That the U.S. still managed to have its way says something about the priority it attached to securing Chinese participation at the exercise.

In an interesting way, the RIMPAC is an apt illustration of how international geopolitics animates all military engagement. In 1971, when the first edition of the RIMPAC was held, it was limited to America’s closest allies. Over the next decade or so, the core group comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the U.K. was expanded to include other allied and friendly nations. In all these years, the RIMPAC represented a pro-Western, anti-communist grouping that seemed to counter Russian and Chinese military ambitions in East Asia. Lately, an ideological shift has occurred with the U.S. embarking on a new type of multidirectional engagement by proposing a full-scale maritime cooperation with China.

Washington possibly has dual motivations in inviting China to the RIMPAC: one, to bring down tensions in the Asia-Pacific by making its primary geopolitical rival a key partner in a collaborative plan for maritime security in the region. Two, to create confidence in China that America is not seeking to isolate and contain Chinese influence in maritime zones it considers as being “core interests.” U.S. analysts point out that inviting the PLA-N to the RIMPAC is a prudent and practical way of integrating China in the existing geopolitical order. This is rooted in the belief that maritime cooperation will serve to invest China in the Asia-Pacific’s security by creating a “new model of military-to-military relations.” The aim, they aver, is to deepen practical cooperation in areas of common interest and manage competition.

The Chinese – at least outwardly – appear to echo American sentiments. As a PRC defense ministry official recently observed, the RIMPAC was “an important mission of military diplomacy” and a means to strengthen “friendly relations with countries of the South Pacific through public diplomacy.” In reality, though, China’s reasons for taking part in the RIMPAC appear to have a more nuanced geo-political rationale: the projection of a powerful but benign image. For Beijing, an appearance at the RIMPAC amounts to a Western recognition of China’s rising military power and growing international role.  Being treated as an equal partner in international affairs, it realizes, is inherently advantageous – especially when China is increasingly being looked at as a potential adversary by other surrounding nations.

It is not as though Beijing has any illusions about being part of a popularity contest in the Pacific. If anything, its participation in the RIMPAC underscores a keen understanding of the geopolitics underlying military maritime exchanges these days. China realizes that maritime realpolitik is a high-stakes competitive game, where a navy must be innovative in outsmarting opponents that challenge core national interests. An effective way of achieving strategic goals is to mix cooperative diplomacy with aggressive posturing. By posing as a potential partner to an opponent’s chief patron one can create a counter-narrative that blurs the strategic picture. This, in turn, erodes the adversary’s military will for sustained defense and leads to a de-facto acceptance of one’s own strategic strength: exactly what the PLA-N appears to be attempting in the Pacific. The constant Chinese refrain of the importance of a “friendly environment that is conducive to ensuring both peace and prosperity,” is thus more likely diplomatic code for “creating favorable conditions for Chinese power projection.” Since shaping perceptions is critical in managing international relations, Chinese policymakers reckon it is better to project maritime power as benign and potentially useful, than portray it as an instrument of deterrence and retribution.

This does not detract from the fact that participation in the RIMPAC is in itself an enormously beneficial proposition for the PLA-N. As China’s regional military profile grows, there is greater all-round expectation that it will, in the future, play a more important role in peacekeeping, anti-piracy patrols, counter-proliferation searches, search-and-rescue efforts, and other international operations. Participation in multilateral exercises creates a perception that China is preparing to rise to international expectations. But beyond appearances, the coordinated exercises at RIMPAC are useful for the experience and exposure of cooperative maritime operations the PLA-N seeks for its cadres. China desires strategic recognition in the Pacific, and cooperative security is a useful cover for developing operational capacities that will give the PLA-N a larger regional profile. The functional interaction at RIMPAC is valuable as it helps the PLA-N validate many of its operational procedures and drills, giving it the confidence to conduct operations in the distant-seas.

Also interesting, from a geo-political perspective, is India’s participation in the RIMPAC. The Indian navy has been part of earlier editions of the exercise, but this is the first time it has sent an operational asset. The INS Sahyadri’s presence in the RIMPAC is, in a way, “symbolic” as it locates New Delhi within the strategic environs of the Pacific. While India has, for some time, been trying to energize the maritime dimension of its Look-East policy, naval exchanges haven’t moved beyond port calls and bilateral exercises. The chance to participate in the largest multilateral exercise in the Pacific has provided New Delhi with a good opportunity to signal a clear desire to be part of the Asia-Pacific’s strategic dynamic.

India’s presence at RIMPAC is also a reflection of its growing defense relationship with the U.S. and Southeast Asia. India imports more American defense equipment than any other country, and its dependence on U.S. manufactured weapons and sensors has increased considerably in recent years. Equally, India’s aid and assistance to Southeast Asian countries has grown steadily. While India’s presence reaffirms its relationship with the U.S. and ASEAN, it also allows for the development of operational congruence with China. New Delhi has been wary of limiting its eastern outreach to nations perceived to be part of a U.S.-alliance, and is seeking an active maritime engagement with Beijing. It realizes, however, that the nautical exchanges must be confined to the Pacific, and not the Indian Ocean where a growing Chinese footprint poses a strong strategic threat.

India’s presence at the RIMPAC also subtly reiterates the importance of the Indo-Pacific as an arc of economic and security interest. It validates the notion that the Pacific is strategically linked to the Indian Ocean, and that maritime security in one theater is intimately related to the other.

To be sure, Sahyadri’s presence at the RIMPAC isn’t evidence of India moving towards a strategic alignment with the U.S. The Indian navy’s recent exercises with the PLA-N in April this year, and the ongoing INDRA-14 exercises with the Russian navy in the Sea of Japan show India’s maritime environment is shaped by its own strategic imperatives, in pursuit of enlightened self-interest. As if to counterbalance the emerging pro-U.S. narrative at RIMPAC, therefore, the Indian navy has sent the Sahyadri’s sister-ship INS Shivalik for the exercises with the Russian navy.

While no maritime exercise can, by itself, alter the strategic balance in region, it does highlight the geopolitical shifts that bear on future security scenarios. The RIMPAC is good example of how nations – as players on a global stage – compete with each other, even when playing on the same side. Alongside the overt cooperation to achieve common goals, each uses delicate tactics to outdo other teammates and optimize individual gains.

Geopolitics, in that sense, is inseparable from military strategy: dialectic or cooperative, it undergirds all forms of military engagement.

Abhijit Singh is a research scholar at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses and looks at Maritime Security in the Indian Ocean. He is co-author of the book Indian Ocean Challenges – A Quest for Cooperative Solutions.

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