The head of U.S. Pacific Fleet opened the big Rim of the Pacific exercise Tuesday by downplaying a South China Sea rift with China and talking not about what divides navies in the region, but what unites them.
Adm. Scott Swift repeatedly used the words “inclusive” and “inclusivity” at Pearl Harbor to describe RIMPAC and said “it’s really not about size, it’s not about economic power. It’s about common interests.”
Swift, answering a question about whether China is being rewarded with RIMPAC participation at the same time the growing Asian power is causing strife in the South China Sea, said the interoperability exercise “is not about China. It’s about the 26 nations” that are participating.
“China is a significant country — just like Australia,” Swift added. “Just like the other countries. Just like Japan (and) the other countries that are participating.”
Twenty-six nations, 45 ships, five submarines, more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel will participate in the biennial RIMPAC exercise running to Aug. 4, mostly in and around the Hawaiian Islands but also off Southern California.
Five People’s Liberation Army Navy ships are in Pearl Harbor for RIMPAC events, which technically started Thursday.
On Saturday, U.S. and Japanese military officials ceremoniously broke open a sake drum in the hangar bay of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter destroyer JS Hyuga during a shipboard reception. On Sunday a volleyball match between Canada and Japan was one of the sporting events scheduled.
At Tuesday’s pier-side press briefing, the exercise’s international command staff was surrounded by warships including the South Korean submarine Lee Eok Gi, the U.S. Navy littoral combat ship USS Coronado, the Coast Guard cutter Stratton, the Royal Canadian Navy ships Vancouver and Calgary, and U.S. Navy destroyers.
Twenty-seven media outlets, mostly from the United States and China but also with a significant presence from Japan, are covering RIMPAC, the Navy said.
The Chinese missile destroyer Xi’an, missile frigate Hengshui, supply ship Gao- youhu, submarine rescue vessel Changdao and hospital ship Peace Ark are participating in the exercise.
“As previously agreed by China and the United States, the Chinese Navy will take part in drills including gunfire, damage control and rescue, anti-piracy, search and rescue, diving and submarine rescue,” said Xinhua, China’s state news agency.
Swift said “inclusivity” is a tenet of RIMPAC, which has continued to grow as participating nations recognize that their prosperity is tied to the current security arrangement in Asia and the Pacific.
“This is what the international maritime community does in ensuring … the norms, standards, rules and laws that have provided the great stability and security — the foundation for prosperity — that we all (have enjoyed) for the last 70 years,” Swift said.
The reference is to the freedom of shipping and passage that the United States has guaranteed in the Pacific since the end of World War II — and which China is now increasingly contesting in the South China Sea.
China claims most of the South China Sea and has warned the United States that it is intruding there.
In May 2015 U.S. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter saying China’s disruptive behavior should not be rewarded and that the RIMPAC invitation should be rescinded.
“Given China’s behavior in the past year alone, including its disregard for the interests of our allies, international law, and established norms, we do not believe Beijing should have been invited to this prestigious U.S.-led military exercise in 2016,” McCain and Reed wrote.
Without referencing any of the specific calls for China to be excluded from RIMPAC, Swift said Tuesday that the “United States is a democracy, and we enjoy a rich debate about decisions that are being made by the military.”
U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Nora Tyson, commander of the Navy’s 3rd Fleet in San Diego, who also serves as the combined task force commander for RIMPAC, said the exercise provides a unique training opportunity.
“Participating forces exercise a wide range of capabilities from disaster response to maritime security operations to sea control and complex war fighting,” Tyson said. “Perhaps more importantly, participants build and sustain relationships and trust that are critical to ensuring the safety of the sea lanes and security on the world’s oceans.”
Planned amphibious operations — getting troops and supplies from ships to shore — are “about us learning to work together,” Tyson said. In a disaster relief situation, “we know each other, we’ve built trust.”
It is that orbit into which the United States would like to pull China.
Swift and other top Pacific military commanders sometimes have had sharp words for China. In March, Swift warned of a potential return to World War II’s “might makes right” in the South China Sea — without mentioning China by name.
But on Tuesday the talk was of nations working together during RIMPAC.
“I want all those 26 nations that come to RIMPAC, when they leave RIMPAC, they feel that they are better prepared to respond together to a humanitarian crisis,” Swift said.
On Tuesday the Chinese ships will head out for the sea phase, an official previously said. Two years ago, when China was a first-time participant in RIMPAC, it stationed a spy ship in international waters off Hawaii. Experts say the United States also gains intelligence from the exercise.