Although 22 nations are participating in the Rim of the Pacific exercise getting underway in Hawaii, media questions at an opening press conference Monday at Pearl Harbor focused primarily on just one: China.
Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., the head of U.S. Pacific Fleet, tried to point out the importance of all the participants.
“Folks, let me just say another thing here,” Harris told the assemblage. “You know, you are all welcome to ask any questions that you want, and we’ll answer them to the best of our ability. But we’ve taken six questions so far, and they’ve all been on China.”
He added, “This is Brunei’s first time ever at RimPac, just like it’s China’s first time ever. And I don’t want to slight the other 20 countries that are here besides China and the United States. This is not about China and the United States. This is about 22 nations that are trying to work together to improve our multilateral operability and our transparency.”
But the symbolism of China’s inaugural participation in RimPac — after bashing the war games two years ago — is undeniable as the United States, the greatest military power in Asia and the Pacific, attempts to cope with rising power China and its assertions in the East and South China Seas.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy sent four ships: the missile destroyer Hai-kou, missile frigate Yue-yang, supply ship Qian-daohu, and hospital ship Peace Ark.
In all, 49 surface ships, six submarines, more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel will participate in war games, interoperability and humanitarian assistance exercises, and weapons-firing drills.
Harris said China will be participating in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, ship gunnery, counter-piracy, search and rescue, diving and salvage, and military medicine.
Harris added that the hope is to develop with China “increased transparency and better understanding of a multilateral venue and how important multilateral events are” as a result of RimPac.
“These events help us operate together when those crises arise that we may find ourselves in close coordination (in),” Harris said.
In a larger sense, China gains stature on the world stage with its participation in the world’s largest international maritime exercise, and the United States can say it is not being exclusionary with the rising Asian power.
The U.S. Navy’s 3rd Fleet commander, Vice Adm. Kenneth E. Floyd — who is the RimPac combined task force commander — said the exercise, which runs to Aug. 1, will start in port with training ashore, briefs on the islands, “and just getting to know each other.”
A number of ship receptions will be held in crowded Pearl Harbor where some warships are three abreast and some sailors have to cross all three to get ashore.
“In about a week, all the ships you see around Pearl Harbor will get underway and we’re going to start working together at sea, and that’s what RIMPAC is all about,” Floyd said. “It’s going to be very valuable training, make no mistake there, it’s going to be really hard work.”
This year’s RimPac, the 24th in the series that began in 1971, is the largest ever and includes units from Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Colombia, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, China, Peru, South Korea, Philippines, Singapore, Tonga, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Thailand was disinvited after its recent coup.