JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii — U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Harry Harris led a dockside news conference Monday, ready to field queries about any of the 22 countries participating in this year’s Rim of the Pacific exercise.
But reporters attending from all over the Pacific seemed interested in only one of those nations, China, which is taking part in the massive RIMPAC for the first time.
After taking a half-dozen questions, a slightly exasperated Harris said, “You all are welcome to ask any questions 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.”
RIMPAC 2014 also marks the first time the nation of Brunei has attended, Harris pointed out.
“And I don’t want to slight the other 20 countries that are here besides China and the U.S.,” said Harris, who was flanked by the top-ranking officers from each of the participating countries. “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 China’s increasingly assertive naval presence in the seas near its borders has placed the country at the front of any discussion of regional security.
Indeed, Harris’s opening remarks about the significance of RIMPAC, while not specifically mentioning China, certainly went to the heart of the uneasy relationship between the two countries.
“As the world’s economic center of gravity shifts rapidly to the Indo-Asia Pacific region, we also note the increasing risks in the region — some man-made and some natural — but all capable of disrupting stability and impacting our collective prosperity,” he said. “We can all appreciate that conflict and crisis are bad for business.
“I think it’s important to note that by simply attending RIMPAC, every nation here is making the bold statement that we must improve multilateral military cooperation despite disagreements. I believe that we can agree to disagree without being disagreeable,” he said.
China is expected to participate in numerous aspects of RIMPAC, including humanitarian assistance/disaster relief; surface gunnery; counter-piracy work; search and rescue; diving and salvage; and military medicine.
Cooperating during these exercises helps nations prepare for actual crises, Harris said. Examples of the need for cooperation are regular and real, such as relief measures after last fall’s devastating typhoon in the Philippines or the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet in March, he said.
China’s navy is also involved in anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden near the Horn of Africa.
“This helps that interoperability, and it helps us on the high seas,” he said.
Harris was asked whether the U.S. was sending a mixed message to China by inviting the country to RIMPAC, while at the same time the U.S. Navy is conducting another exercise in the Philippines – Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training, or CARAT – in the South China Sea, where China has been involved in numerous sea skirmishes with the Philippines over disputed islands.
“I’m not concerned about sending a mixed message at all,” Harris said. “I think this exercise, as I’ve said before, is welcoming to China and invites China into a multilateral venue.”
Senior Capt. Zhao Xiaogang, the top-ranking officer of China’s contingent, was asked what his country hoped to gain from attending.
“The major objectives of the [People’s Liberation] Navy’s participation in RIMPAC is threefold,” he said through a translator. “The first is to further promote sound development of the new ties, military-to-military relations, between the U.S. and China. Second is to further enhance communication and deepen cooperation between China and all participating navies.”
The final reason is to display “the positive attitude of the Chinese armed forces,” he said.
Zhao later told reporters that he and his sailors had spent the 10 days sailing to Hawaii working with the other navies to plan exercises. “I think this activity is very successful because it promotes understanding and friendship between each other,” he said.
He said the Chinese navy had held a reception aboard one of its ships for commanders from other countries, including the United States.
As for Japan’s attitude about a RIMPAC that includes China — at a time when the two countries are disputing sovereignty of islands in the East China Sea — Rear Adm. Yasuki Nakahata of the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force said that his country welcomed the Chinese navy.
“I believe participation with China and the improvement of a military power of a big nation as China will contribute to stability and peace of the region,” Nakahata said.
For the first time the exercise includes two hospital ships, one from China named Peace Ark, and the San Diego-based Mercy. The ships will be used during a mass-casualty drill.
Other nations with forces involved in RIMPAC this year are Australia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, France, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, South Korea, Philippines, Singapore and Tonga.
“I have a lot of liaison officers and two or three translators,” said Rear Adm. Gilles Couturier, the Canadian officer in charge of the exercise’s maritime component, when asked how communication works with so many different tongues spoken. “You know, mariners in general, we all speak basic English. We all have enough basic understanding of English, and that’s the language of the sea.”