Pacific War Games Why China is Taking Part in US Military Exercises

The United States invited countries from around the Pacific to the world's biggest international maritime exercise, including its greatest rival, China. Its participation says a lot about the country's ambitions -- and its limits.
Ships taking part in the RIMPAC maritime exercise

Ships taking part in the RIMPAC maritime exercise

Foto: U.S. Navy

Civil unrest has erupted in Griffon, a democratic island nation in the Pacific. The neighboring country of Orion, ruled by a military junta, is gearing up for invasion. An Orion-backed terrorist group has already begun spreading fear and panic in Griffon, setting off bombs and sending waves of refugees fleeing. The government of Griffon is on the brink of collapse.

In New York, the United Nations Security Council convenes, passing resolutions and urging a return to peace and stability in Griffon.

A large military force is assembled. It consists of 25,000 soldiers from 26 countries, 45 warships, five submarines and more than 200 aircraft. Their mission: Neutralize the terrorists, secure the waters around Griffon and put a stop to Orion's aggression.

The battle for the fictitious Griffon is the scenario of the world's largest international maritime exercise, known as the "Rim of the Pacific," or RIMPAC for short, which came to a close in early August after four weeks of drills. This year's event was planned to the last detail, including the wording of the fake UN resolutions. Since the Cold War, the US Navy has regularly invited its allies and countries along the Pacific Rim to practice forming a broad military coalition in and around the Hawaiian Islands and Southern California. Training ranges from the formation of a multinational chain of command to the coordination of complex weapons systems, landing operations and the joint sinking of warships.

This year's exercise took place 75 years after the Japanese attacked the US  naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, which provoked the Americans to enter the fray of World War II. Japan's subsequent defeat and the Allied victory established the US as the dominant military power in the Pacific region.

RIMPAC 2016 was marked by the participation of one country in particular: China . Rather than take on an observatory role like other nations, China contributed five warships, 1,200 officers and soldiers, marines and a team of combat divers.

Graphic: Major Pacific Powers

Graphic: Major Pacific Powers


China's participation had been long negotiated, yet it was still not without controversy. Why, politicians and military experts in the US wondered, should the Navy invite a country pursuing such an aggressive foreign policy in South Asia? Why should America's sailors cooperate with a country that is pumping billions into its maritime forces, thereby making itself the US' new Pacific rival? Why should Chinese officers be provided insights into the tactics, technology and standard operating procedures of the US military and its allies when one day these very strategies might have to be used against China?

Rising China

For a good two years, Beijing has been erecting and fortifying bases in the South China Sea along islands and reefs -- territory that several US allies claim as their own.

In early July, an international tribunal in The Hague rejected Beijing's claims of sovereignty over nearly all of the waters between China and Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. China declared the court procedure a "farce" and threatened to enforce an Air Defense Identification Zone along its southern coast. Nevertheless, Washington did not rescind its invitation and the Chinese showed up for the mock maneuvers.

What does this apparent contradiction mean for bilateral relations between China and the US -- relations that President Barack Obama's National Security Advisor Susan Rice has called "the most consequential in the world today?"

This question goes beyond the current crisis in the South China Sea. Can a global power like the US share its hegemony with a new rival? Can a rising power like China, which itself feels entitled to world power status, create a new order without injuring the old one?

Answers to these questions can be found in the Pacific, at RIMPAC, where the geopolitical interests of China and the US collide.

Fictional Allies

At the foremost pier in Pearl Harbor, where the murky water of the military port swirls into the cobalt blue of the Pacific Ocean, the elite divers of the American and Chinese navies train side by side. It's a rare and unusual sight: muscular, tattooed Americans next to the ascetic Chinese in their pristine uniforms.

"It's a simple scenario," says a US lieutenant, who only gives his rank, in line with the protocol of his unit. "The bad guys are on Orion. We and the Chinese are helping the good guys here on Griffon. We're on the same side," he says, grinning.

The "bad guys" may have sunk a submarine or laid mines. On this particular morning, the Americans are showing the Chinese how they use underwater welding equipment to sever the steel wires or chains that anchor mines and how they attach rescue hooks to sunken ships. In the afternoon, the Chinese will show the Americans how they do it.

A Chinese officer films one of his American counterparts as he prepares for a dive. "Up until this point, we do it the same way," says the man with the camera, who gives his name and rank as Hu Pei, lieutenant commander from the Qingdao naval base.

The artificiality of the situation and the discomfort of the officers is palpable. America and China are only on the same side in the fictional world of this naval warfare exercise. In real life, they wouldn't trust one another an inch.

"The positions of China and the US in the Pacific contradict each other diametrically," says Shi Yinhong, the director of the Center for American Studies at the Renmin University of China and an advisor to the government in Beijing. Following the ruling of the Hague tribunal in July, China declared its position "more radically than ever before in the history of the People's Republic," Shi says.

First, Beijing demanded that all islands and reefs within a specific area of the South China Sea be recognized as Chinese. Second, it declared the rest of this huge area, with all its shipping routes and raw materials, to be an exclusively Chinese economic zone. Third, China expected the world to view its claims as historically justified and non-negotiable.

Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

Foto: REUTERS/U.S. Navy

Past Chinese leaders thought the same way, Shi says, but today China is strong enough to enforce its claims. And so the conflict between China and America has been laid bare: "Washington insists on its preponderance in the Pacific, but Beijing isn't willing to tolerate it anymore. America isn't the only country that considers itself an exceptional power -- China does too. On this point, both sides are uncompromising," Shi says.

Why, then, would the Chinese leadership send some of the country's most modern warships and best soldiers to an exercise hosted by its rival?

Joe Biden Arrives

Shi shrugs his shoulders. "It is a tactic of reason and common sense," he says. "If others perceive you to be expansionist, then you want to show how approachable you are despite everything."

The USS John C. Stennis is one of 10 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers of the Nimitz class. These ships are more than 300 meters long and they have crews of 5,500 people and up to 90 aircraft onboard. They each lead a so-called strike group, made up of cruisers, destroyers and supply ships that are part of an ongoing rotation of US naval forces around the world.

The John C. Stennis Strike Group, or JCSSG for short, spent the last few months deployed in the western Pacific. It arrived in Pearl Harbor in late June to take part in the RIMPAC exercise. When it was about 140 miles (225 km) south of Oahu, all fighter jet operations were temporarily suspended to make way for a prominent guest who was arriving via Osprey, a hybrid aircraft that looks like a cross between an airplane and a helicopter.

As the Osprey landed on the deck of the Stennis, the force of the wind from the rotors caused the man in the blue suit who climbed out of the aircraft to stagger. It was US Vice President Joe Biden, and he had come to express his thanks to the crew of the aircraft carrier.

There had been trouble in the western Pacific. Twice this spring, Chinese and American planes buzzed each other so closely that they almost slammed into one another. Each side pointed a finger at the other for the close call. China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs called upon America to cease its provocations, while the US Secretary of Defense retorted that China was erecting a "Great Wall of self-isolation" with its artificial islands. In late April, Beijing denied the Stennis entry to the port of Hong Kong -- a very unusual diplomatic slight in US-China relations.

Around a thousand sailors and officers were already waiting as Biden took the podium in the carrier's hangar deck. "Sailors, I'm here for one main reason," he said. "That's to say thank you. Thank you for being part of the greatest naval fighting force in the history of the world." Stability in the Pacific region is "absolutely indispensable" to the security of the US. "President Barack Obama and I have made it crystal clear that the United States is a Pacific nation. We're going to be present in the region, and we're going to be active in the region -- for as long as any of you are alive."

A Tense Close Call

Few US politicians have so consistently advocated for US interests in the Pacific as Biden. He, President Obama as well as former Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton were all behind the US' "pivot to Asia." By 2020, around 60 percent of US warships will be deployed in the Pacific and no longer, as in past decades, in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.

Half of the global population lives on the Pacific Rim, Biden said. It's only a matter of time before the region is responsible for half of the world's economic activity. And the biggest chunk of this economic activity will presumably come from China.

Joe Biden knows the Chinese leader Xi Jinping better than most politicians in the US. He was nurturing his relationship with Xi back when the Chinese politician was the Communist party chief of Shanghai. On the sidelines of his visit to the Stennis, Biden explained that he had racked up more than 20 hours of conversations with Xi over the years, including one memorable evening during his last visit to Beijing in December 2013.

At the time, China had just announced that it would enforce an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea, alarming Japan and South Korea most of all. It was the same measure with which Beijing is threatening America's allies in the South China Sea today.

Biden said Xi asked him what he expected from China. He replied that, "We're going to fly B-52s through it," Biden recalled, referring to China's assurances that it would "adopt defensive emergency measures" against any aircraft that entered its newly claimed airspace and didn't identify itself, report a flight plan and stay on radar. "We're coming. We do not recognize it. Period." Biden told the Chinese it would not be wise to enforce it.

China didn't shoot down either of the two US bombers; instead it just lodged a diplomatic complaint. But seldom before had the world's biggest old and new powers come so close to an armed conflict.

So why would America invite such a hostile neighbor to take part in its warfare exercises?

Headquarters of the US Pacific Fleet

Vice Admiral Nora Tyson wears a bright white uniform as she arrives at a park overlooking Pearl Harbor. The bungalows between the palm trees could belong to a university -- that is, if some of those buildings weren't in fact windowless bunkers. It's inside this idyllic park that the headquarters of the US Pacific Fleet is located.

Tyson hails from Memphis, Tennessee, and she speaks with a strong Southern accent that she never lost in her long and unusual career. She's the first woman to ever lead a strike group. She's also the first woman to command an American fleet -- the Third Fleet, which is hosting the RIMPAC maneuver.

So why did she invite China to RIMPAC, when the country is frightening its neighbors?

Tyson has served in places as distant as Singapore and Brussels and she has a cool demeanor when it comes to her "theater," as high-ranking US military officials call their areas of command. "We neighbors of the Pacific are different and don't want to be the same," she says evasively. "But the best way to avoid military conflicts is by building trust. That's why China is part of RIMPAC." Officers from such different cultures will have a tougher time firing on each other "if they have roasted marshmallows together."

In the meantime, China is sending "fishing boats" into the South China Sea whose crews are armed and have already clashed with coast guard ships from neighboring countries. Marshmallows aren't going to change that. Who can guarantee that no incident will arise that then spirals out of control?

Tyson admits that danger exists, but that's why a colleague is currently in Beijing. "If an incident like that were to occur, trust me, the telephones will be ringing in the offices of Admiral Richardson or Admiral Wu." Admiral John Richardson is the Chief of Naval Operations and Wu Shengli is his Chinese counterpart. Why else, Tyson asks, would China and the US hold regular video conferences at the command, fleet and navy levels?

US Navy Vice Admiral Nora Tyson: Officers will have a tougher time firing on each other "if they have roasted marshmallows together."

US Navy Vice Admiral Nora Tyson: Officers will have a tougher time firing on each other "if they have roasted marshmallows together."

Foto: U.S. Navy

The Americans also confer with the Russians, but they cancelled their participation in RIMPAC -- a decision that was only logical among adversaries. Instead, in mid-July, a Russian destroyer suddenly appeared off the coast of Hawaii, with its crew viewing the maneuvers from up close. The Russian officers could be seen with the naked eye from the deck of the warship USS America.

"This was not unexpected," says Tyson. "Those are international waters out there, everyone can sail around. They should just take care and make sure not to get too close to one of our sinking execises." The Russians behaved very professionally, she said.

America, Tyson says, wants to see the peaceful development of the Pacific Rim states, including the "peaceful rise of China" that leaders in Beijing have been speaking of for years. Still, even if the rise of such diverse countries as China, Japan, the Philippines and North Korea were peaceful and could happen simultaneously, would America truly want that in the case of China?

No Chinese 'Monroe Doctrine'

China is different from its neighbors -- it is much larger and, like the United States itself once had, it has far-reaching ambitions. The US' rise to the status of a global power happened according to a doctrine announced in 1823 by President James Monroe that remained in effect for nearly 200 years. It stated that outsiders like the established European powers, or later the Soviet Union, had no business in North or South America. The American continent was the sphere of influence of the United States, and those who opposed this view could count on a military response.

It appears that China's leadership has something similar in mind today -- although this doctrine seems not to apply to all of Asia, but rather to the East and South China Seas as its area of influence.

"China will not announce any Monroe Doctrine of its own," says government advisor Shi Yinhong. "Saying something like that publicly would lead to a serious confrontation with the other powers."

However, he added, that does not apply to the "thoughts and subconscious desires" of many Chinese. "Because if you look at China's behavior, at its concrete actions, it becomes clear that Beijing is claiming predominance in East Asia and the West Pacific."

In the maneuvers, America and China are fighting on the same side in order to protect the "good guys" on Griffon from the "bad guys" on Orion. Ultimately, though, RIMPAC is just a game.

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