Thunder echoed far beyond the Pali this week, as Republican Congressman Randy Forbes of Virginia slammed China for sending a spy ship as an uninvited guest to RIMPAC — the Rim of the Pacific military exercises taking place in and around the waters off Hawaii through the end of the month.
Forbes, who chairs the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection, told U.S. Naval Institute News that “it is clear that China is not ready to be a responsible partner and that their first trip to RIMPAC should probably be their last.”
While Congressman Forbes’ comments managed to combine shock, horror and moral indignation, it’s telling that the reaction from the United States military was much more pragmatic.
Referring to the presence of what’s called an “auxiliary general intelligence ship” or “AGI” from China, a spokesman for U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor said: “We’re not surprised that it’s there.”
Capt. Darryn James said the Chinese ship is “operating in waters in accordance with international law and we do the same.”
This week, China’s state-owned Global Times issued a statement from the country’s Defense Ministry, saying “China respects the rights of all relevant coastal countries under the international law, and hopes that relevant countries also respect the rights Chinese ships are entitled to under the law.”
There is an irony about China’s Defense Ministry citing “international law” in reference to coastal countries, since that is at the heart of a series of territorial disputes China has with a number of its neighbors in the East and South China Seas.
Near Hawaii this week, the Chinese AGI is outside the territorial waters of the United States, which stretch to a distance of 12 nautical miles. This is not to be confused with the “Exclusive Economic Zone,” which extends to 200 nautical miles.
The issue of maritime borders and counting miles remains a sensitive one for China. And this incident is a timely reminder that China is not the only country with powers of observation.
For example, U.S. military and intelligence folks undoubtedly watched with interest two months ago when Chinese and Russian naval forces conducted joint exercises not far off the coast of Shanghai. This was the third year in a row that the Chinese and the Russians have conducted such maneuvers. Russian President Vladimir Putin told Russian media at the time that “it would be no exaggeration if I said that the cooperation between our two countries is at its highest level in history.”
It would seem prudent for U.S. forces to monitor such naval cooperation.
Military exercises of varying blends and flavors are conducted all the time, all over the world. It is true that RIMPAC is the biggest such undertaking, with the current version involving 22 nations and some 25,000 personnel. As the U.S. Navy reminds readers of its website , it is simply “the world’s largest international maritime exercise.”
It’s also far from the only one. Countries watch what others are doing, and the result can be a net positive for global security. One of the biggest security risks on the planet is the potential for mistaken communication, misread intent, or any other range of human error in an environment when the military forces of mutually distrustful countries are in close proximity.
The more widely each country’s priorities are understood, the better for stability. Those priorities are reflected by what sorts of maneuvers are practiced, how those exercises are conducted, and who else is taking part.
And that’s why naval exercises in particular loom so large these days, especially given territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas.
Military exercises tend not to explode in the media like shooting wars and tragedies involving civilian airplanes. To those involved, they are a form of routine — an underreported but very real piece of globalization in the 21st century. This form of international coordination, communication and cross-cultural management may not make the business school curricula, but it is a critical piece of the modern world.
Clearly there are limits to shared communication. The Chinese are not taking part in all aspects of RIMPAC, nor should they. Certain types of scenarios involving coordination among allies need to be “kept in the family.” One challenge is defining that family unit in a world that is constantly shifting its relationships and where alliances of varying degrees of convenience can change relatively quickly.
Two years ago, the Chinese were not invited to participate in the last RIMPAC. The Russians were, and they came. This year, the Chinese are here and the Russians are not. The Vietnamese were not invited to either event.
International military exercises are part of the modern world and they are not going away. They can actually be a positive force as far as they can make motive, intent and communication more transparent.
But it’s best not to pretend we’re shocked when we find the whole world is watching.
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Bill Dorman is News Director at Hawaii Public Radio. He lived and worked in Asia for 10 years, covering stories from more than a dozen countries and territories for CNN and Bloomberg News. His broadcast experience also includes work in New York and Washington, D.C. His “Asia Minute” feature can be heard weekday mornings on HPR.