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The world’s largest naval exercise is set to begin off the coast of Hawaii on Monday as diplomatic tensions escalate between the U.S. and China — and as Oahu experiences surging COVID-19 infections.
Unique circumstances and heightened local scrutiny surround this year’s iteration of RIMPAC as navies from several nations arrive for the biennial exercise.
On Monday, the Chinese Communist Party-run news outlet Global Times chided the U.S. Navy for holding RIMPAC “despite Hawaiian people’s petition to cancel the war games and reports that Hawaii’s military novel coronavirus case count still remains a mystery.”
Several countries participating in RIMPAC have condemned what they consider China’s efforts to control access to critical trade routes and waterways. U.S. Navy 3rd Fleet spokesman Cmdr. John Fage said RIMPAC is critical to strengthening alliances to “ensure a free and open Indo–Pacific.”
The U.S. military considers the Pacific to be its top priority theater. Navy brass had expected the 2020 iteration of the biennial RIMPAC would be the largest yet.
On March 6, Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. John Aquilino told reporters that at least 26 nations were expected to participate. Five days later the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
Since then the exercise has been drastically slimmed down — only nine countries will participate. Usually a roughly two-month long exercise, this year it will be about two weeks long. There will also be no amphibious operations and service members will not have shore leave as they’ve had during previous years.
“RIMPAC 2020 was carefully planned with consideration to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Fage said. “To ensure the safety of the citizens of Hawaii, our service members and our allies and partners, RIMPAC 2020 will be an at-sea only exercise.”
Ships will only dock for maintenance, refueling and to restock food.
“Their crews will remain with their ships and will not leave the piers on which they are moored,” Fage said, adding they will not have contact with any other military personnel or civilians at any time.
A small onshore crew has arrived for the exercise, but all are quarantined in military facilities upon arriving and have been tested. A negative test is required before they leave their quarantine area. Fage came in from San Diego and went through the quarantine himself along with testing. “To date, all have tested negative for COVID-19,” Fage said.
As Oahu struggles to stop the spread of the virus, the exercise has become particularly controversial.
Honolulu City Councilman Ron Menor introduced a resolution in April requesting that Aquilino call off the exercise, referencing the cancellation of planned exercises in the Philippines due to COVID-19 concerns.
Last week, members of the Cancel RIMPAC Coalition sent Gov. David Ige a petition with 12,000 signatures urging him to request the U.S. Navy and other participating navies to call off the exercise.
“It’s not an essential activity,” said Kyle Kajihiro, a member of the Cancel RIMPAC Coalition and a professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa.
Kajihiro says the lack of sailors coming ashore provides no reassurance to him and other activists.
“Navy ships are crowded, you have lots of people in confined spaces,” he said. “It’s like an incubator for the virus.”
Kajihiro points to the case involving the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in which 1,156 members of the crew became infected and one died. Several members of the ship’s crew were eventually brought ashore in Guam and many were quarantined in hotels. At least one sailor was investigated for violating quarantine by leaving his hotel room.
Activists worry about a repeat of the Roosevelt debacle in Hawaii.
“We have no confidence that this will be confined to bases,” Kajihiro said, adding that activists believe the exercise should be canceled both for the safety of service members and community members alike.
Two Philippine Navy sailors, crew members of the missile frigate BRP Jose Rizal, tested positive and were quarantined in Quezon City before the ship set sail for Hawaii last month. The rest of the crew tested negative before its voyage. A positive test for a Japanese sailor also delayed the voyage of Japan’s Aegis destroyer Ashigara to RIMPAC.
But Fage said the fleet has learned from what happened on the Roosevelt and planned extensively to put mitigation measures in place with testing kits and improved medical facilities for ships at sea. “If medically necessary to move an individual ashore, they will be treated at a local military medical facility,” said Fage.
He said there’s no reason to expect that sailors would be moved to hotels like in Guam and that there’s more than enough military resources to keep any infected person separate from the local community.
But Kajihiro said he’s skeptical of the military’s ability to contain the virus, pointing to the infection of several Thai soldiers returning from Hawaii last month. They had been training on Oahu during Exercise Lightning Forge, the Army’s first large-scale exercise in Hawaii since the pandemic began.
The U.S. military has been trying to maintain strong ties with Thailand while China tries to bring the Southeast Asian country into its “New Silk Road.” The Thai military has since suspended all overseas training.
“RIMPAC is not just a local issue,” said Kajihiro.
The petition to cancel RIMPAC has the support of several international organizations including The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and others.
“We need to think about the very negative geopolitical impact of this exercise,” said Kajihiro.
In June U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi in Hawaii at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam to discuss a range of issues, including mounting tensions at sea.
But in July Pompeo announced that the U.S. rejected almost all of Bejing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. China claims almost the entire sea as its own territory over the objections of many neighboring countries. Several other regional countries followed America’s lead, including Australia. As Australian navy ships made their way to RIMPAC, the Chinese Navy confronted them.
“At a time like this holding this exercise is very provocative,” Kajihiro said, arguing that holding RIMPAC is a hostile act that will only encourage more conflict. “It’s simply not something we need to be doing during a pandemic.”
However, several countries with interests in the South China Sea — many of which have been or seek to be RIMPAC participants — have accused Beijing of provocation. Officials from India, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam and Philippines have all accused China of taking advantage of the global chaos brought on by the pandemic to more aggressively pursue its territorial ambitions.
Since the pandemic began the Chinese military sank a Vietnamese fishing boat, engaged in a bloody border skirmish with India that left dozens of soldiers dead and has repeatedly flown warplanes into Taiwanese airspace.
The Cancel RIMPAC Coalition plans to organize a convoy of protesters on Sunday afternoon that will drive to Pearl Harbor and Fort DeRussy.
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