Last year China joined the U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific Exercise for the first time. However, Beijing’s role in RIMPAC has become controversial. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain recently opined: “I would not have invited them this time because of their bad behavior.”
The Obama administration is conflicted. Bloomberg’s Josh Rogin worried that “so far, China is paying no price for its aggression.” Bonnie Glaser of CSIS suggested using the exercises to threaten the PRC. Patrick Cronin of the Center for a New American Security was less certain, acknowledging benefits of China’s inclusion: “It all depends on what you think RIMPAC should be.”
That is the key question. In part the exercise is about mutually beneficial cooperation for non-military purposes. With the simultaneous growth in commercial traffic and national navies, there likely will be increasing need and opportunity for joint search and rescue, operational safety, anti-piracy patrols, and humanitarian relief.
The question also involves military-military cooperation. Contacts between the Chinese and U.S. navies are few; those between the PRC’s forces and those of countries at odds with Beijing’s territorial claims, such as Japan and the Philippines, are even fewer.
There is value in allowing potential opponents a better assessment of one’s capabilities. Chinese expectations may be more realistic if they have a better sense of what and who they might face, especially the navies of their neighbors, which are expanding and becoming more competent.