China joins US-led naval exercises as ties fray over maritime disputes



    IN a rare move that analysts say could ease soaring tensions between Washington and Beijing, five warships from China’s navy have taken part in training exercises with US vessels while en route from the western Pacific to Hawaii for the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise scheduled to kick off Thursday.

    But while Chinese state media played up the so-called group sail, which saw ships from the two navies meet in the waters last week, the US side had been mum despite the event being planned well in advance.

    |“This is all part of the previously planned lead-up to RIMPAC,” US Pacific Fleet spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Matt Knight said in an email to The Japan Times on Wednesday.

    “Currently there are multiple group sails occurring that allow the participants a chance to operate together prior to RIMPAC formally starting.”

    Analysts said the US side may have downplayed last week’s group sail—which offers participants the chance to conduct basic training such as tactical maneuvering drills and communication system checks—after an embarrassing incident involving a Chinese spy vessel during the last RIMPAC exercises in 2014.

    China’s navy joined the war games as a participant for the first time that year, but also sent one of its intelligence-gathering ships to spy on the exercises, undermining what proponents have said is a key US objective of its engagement with the Chinese military—trust-building.

    Knight said the US Navy had not observed such a vessel ahead of the exercises.

    This year’s RIMPAC comes amid rising tensions between Washington and Beijing as the two powers await an international court ruling on China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. A decision is likely to come in the coming days or weeks and is widely expected to rule in favor of the Philippines, which filed the case.

    The U.S. and its allies in the region have roundly condemned China over its massive land-reclamation program and alleged militarization of the man-made islands in the disputed South China Sea.

    This has prompted Washington to ramp up its so-called freedom-of-navigation operations in the waters.

    It has also forced the US to perform a delicate balancing act as it seeks to maintain peaceful relations with China while also standing by its commitment to regional allies.

    Critics of Washington’s policy in the region have urged a more robust response by the U.S. to what they see as Chinese aggression. They have also said that by inviting China to the U.S.-led RIMPAC exercise, it risks presenting Beijing with a muddled message.

    Analysts, however, have dismissed these claims.

    “The US is trying to signal resolve and commitment to our allies and interests while maintaining as peaceful an atmosphere as possible, and walking this line means conveying two messages at the same time,” said James Schoff of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The signals may seem mixed but they are actually sending one delicate and important message to multiple audiences.”

    Yun Sun, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at the US Stimson Center think tank, agreed.
    This tack, Yun said, shows the “US is committed to engaging the Chinese military in pursuit of more transparency, more confidence-building and more cooperation on issues of . . . common interest.”

    “In other words, the fact that the U.S. and China do not see eye to eye on the issue of the South China Sea does not hinder military engagements, exchanges and dialogues. In fact, it makes them even more important than before.”

    Inviting the Chinese to take part in RIMPAC, Yun said, is a demonstration of US leadership and a willingness to include and work with China.

    If military-to-military exchanges and similar mechanisms are closed, the US should be more worried about the status of the bilateral relations and potential intentional or unintentional crises arising, Yun added.

    “And honestly speaking, a demonstration of our capacity and technologies will also help China develop a more accurate assessment of the military balance of power between the two countries.”



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