Southeast Asia | Washington sends allies mixed signals with PLA Navy role in RIMPAC

Washington sends allies mixed signals with PLA Navy role in RIMPAC

Bill Gertz June 28, 2016 10:10 AM (UTC+8)
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The US government is sending mixed signals to American allies in Asia by opposing Chinese territorial encroachment while allowing China to take part in a regional military exercise.

Five naval vessels from the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) recently met up with US warships in preparation for the latest biennial international naval war games known as Rim of the Pacific, or RIMPAC.

The exercise, held every two years, include navies from 27 nations along with 25,000 military personnel, 45 ships, five submarines and more than 200 aircraft.

Chinese state media gave prominent coverage to the five PLAN warships that were met by US vessels in the western Pacific on June 20 in the run up to the naval exercises that begin June 30.

Warning ‘anybody’

On the same day, the US Navy publicized the transit of two aircraft carrier strike groups in the Philippine Sea in a major show of military strength that Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said was a meant as a sign of US resolve in support of local allies. The four-star admiral said during remarks at a Washington conference that such dual carrier operations are rare but were an important “signal to everybody in the region that we’re committed, we’re going to be there for our allies, to reassure them, and for anybody who wants to destabilize that region, we hope there’s a deterrent message there as well.”

The “anybody” was a veiled reference to China since the CNO, following softline policies of the Obama administration, was seeking to play down the growing challenge posed by China. During his remarks at the conference, Richardson appeared to minimize China’s growing high-technology weapons capabilities, known as anti-access and area denial systems that include long-range precision guided missiles. He called the weapons “sort of an aspiration” and “really nothing new,” suggesting China could not really use the weapons effectively.

Others in the Pentagon, however, are much more worried than the admiral about China’s growing weapons capabilities that have been built up over the past several decades with the strategic goal of driving US forces out of Asia. That strategy is now playing out in destabilizing Chinese territorial claims in the South China and East China Seas.

2014 RIMPAC exercise
2014 RIMPAC exercise

China asymmetric warfare threat

China’s increasing asymmetric warfare capabilities – like its long-range anti-ship ballistic missiles, anti-satellite weapons, and cyber warfare capabilities – pose strategic threats to US forces that are difficult to match. “In all areas of these niche weapons capabilities, the Chinese are either equal to the United States or are rapidly catching up,” said a Pentagon official.

Analysts say the strategic message of US commitment to regional stability and security is undermined by allowing China to gain international prestige with its naval participation in RIMPAC.

China’s RIMPAC participation comes at the same time Beijing is engaged in a long-term campaign of island-building that is viewed as a covert effort to take over the South China Sea. China also has targeted reclaiming control of Japan’s Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, that China calls its Diaoyudao.

China stepped up its coercive diplomacy over the Senkakus earlier this month by sending a warship within 24 miles of the islands. “We are worried that this action raises tensions to a higher level,” Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo after the incursion.

Pentagon mum on Senkakus incident

rimpac2016The Pentagon made no protests or statements of support for its Japanese allies. A Pentagon spokesman, asked about the Chinese naval action, dismissed it as a regional matter between Beijing and Tokyo despite the fact the Pentagon has said several times in the past that any Chinese military action against the Senkakus would trigger a US response under the US-Japan mutual defense treaty.

Technically, there are concerns China will use its participation in RIMPAC for valuable intelligence gathering that could give the PLAN an edge in a future crisis or conflict. A Pentagon spokesman also told reporters that the PLAN participation will be strictly limited under US law that prevents the sharing of sensitive war-fighting information with China during exchanges and drills. “The U.S. Navy has operational security safeguards to protect US technology and [US] tactics, techniques and procedures from disclosure,” said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, the spokesman. “That’s the case for all nations that participate in RIMPAC.”

One of the clearest signs that the US Navy is concerned about its mixed signals was seen in its daily news clipping service, widely distributed throughout the Pentagon and private sector that blacked out all coverage of the recent US-China naval rendezvous. And no major news media reported on it as well.

Behind the sensitivities is the Navy’s embarrassment from China’s last participation in RIMPAC, in 2014, when the PLAN took part in the war games as a participant, but also sent one of its intelligence-gathering ships to spy on the exercises – undermining what proponents have said is the key US objective of its engagement with the Chinese military — trying to build trust.

Crossed signals

“It is ironic that at the same time the US Navy is conducting dual-carrier operations in the South China Sea, in the words of CNO Adm. Richardson, to ‘signal’ our allies the US is committed to the region and also to send a ‘deterrent’ message, that we have also dispatched two destroyers, the USS Stockdale and USS Lawrence, to rendezvous with five PRC naval warships in the western Pacific Ocean for a combined transit to Hawaii for RIMPAC,” said retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell.

“What is more than ironic is that this story has not been publicized in US or western press, yet is highly publicized in the Chinese press this week,” said Fanell a former intelligence chief for the US Pacific Fleet.

“One wonders just how effective our message of deterrence is when China appears to be interpreting the Stockdale and Lawrence’s reception as nothing more than US kowtowing on the high seas.”

That's One Big Flag The Type 903A "966" Gaoyouhu replenishment ship is flying a Chinese flag with a surface area bigger than that of an Olympic sized swimming pool. During the 11 day voyage, the Gaoyouhu will refuel both the American and Chinese warships.
That’s One Big Flag
The Type 903A “966” Gaoyouhu replenishment ship is flying a Chinese flag with a surface area bigger than that of an Olympic sized swimming pool. During the 11 day voyage, the Gaoyouhu refueled both American and Chinese warships for RIMPAC 2016.

China’s views of the United States have hardened over past several months as the Pentagon has sought to push back – albeit slightly – against Chinese activities in the South China and East China Seas.

Typical of the harsh view was a commentary on June 22 published in the People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, that called the two-carrier strike group high-profile action a sign the United States is a “hegemon” and “troublemaker” in the region.

The commentary followed Beijing’s abrupt cancelling of a port visit to Hong Kong by the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis. The visit was long-planned and the cancellation was a clear signal of Chinese anger at US pushback.

The Stennis was one of the two carriers in the recent Philippine Sea formation. The second was the USS Ronald Reagan.

Rick Fisher, a China affairs analyst with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said America’s Asian allies and friends prize stability and the lack of conflict with China and thus support Washington’s concerted efforts to point China in peaceful direction. The regional states also are pressing Washington to do more to deter Beijing’s aggressive-imperialist ambitions.

“But the facts of China’s all around military expansion toward global military power projection and space control require that the United States begin investing in Cold War levels of deterrent capability while seeking global constraints on China’s imperialism projects, like global cyber and economic control,” Fisher said.

“For now, inviting China to RIMPAC despite its egregious intelligence exploitation may seem appropriate, but this can only continue to be the case when China is adequately deterred militarily,” he added.

Once the United States begins to lose the military balance in Asia to China, “we should not be surprised when our friends flock to China’s ‘RIMPAC,’” Fisher said.

Bill Gertz
Bill Gertz is a journalist and author who has spent decades covering defense and national security affairs. He is the author of six national security books.
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