RIMPAC: Beijing and Taipei Conspicuous by Their Absence
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
July 12, 2012
Summary: The South China Sea dispute is heating up. The Diaoyutai Islands dispute is deadlocked. The US-led RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific) naval exercises are currently under way. This is the largest scale exercise in the history of the world. Twenty-two nations are participating over a period of five weeks. All told they will mobilize 42 ships, six submarines, over 200 aircraft, and 25,000 troops.
Full Text below:
The South China Sea dispute is heating up. The Diaoyutai Islands dispute is deadlocked. The US-led RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific) naval exercises are currently under way. This is the largest scale exercise in the history of the world. Twenty-two nations are participating over a period of five weeks. All told they will mobilize 42 ships, six submarines, over 200 aircraft, and 25,000 troops.
The original purpose of the exercise was to test the ability of the United States to work with its Asian-Pacific allies. But the current exercise tried to please everyone. The attempt to create a unified command structure was a major undertaking. Never mind actual tactical drills. From a military perspective, it means far less than exercises between the United States, Japan and South Korea. But from a political perspective it is very important indeed.
First of all, almost every country that borders the Pacific is involved in this US led exercise. Some may have only a single ship or single aircraft in the exercise. But these symbolize their military ties with Washington. Recently, while visiting Singapore, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the eastward shift of U.S. Navy forces, into the Pacific Region. The RIMPAC exercises show that Washington is determined to stay in Asia.
This exercise was initiated in 1971. It was originally aimed at the Soviet Pacific Fleet. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the exercises were cut to one every two years. Its mission became increasingly blurred. It included rounding up pirates, disaster relief, and search and rescue missions. This year however, the scale suddenly expanded. In the past, the enemy was Russia. This year, even Russia was invited to participate. Mainland China on the other hand, was not. This of course has led to speculation. Apparently Mainland China has become the enemy in the RIMPAC exercises.
Before the exercises began, Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, the U.S. Pacific Combatant Commander, told interviewers in Beijing that the exercises represented Washington's policy of firmness and flexibility. The implication was that although they would conduct exercises, they would first inform Beijing that the exercises were not directed at it. Beijing accused Washington of harboring ulterior motives. But at the same time it staged a lavish reception, saying that Beijing and Washington might fight but they would not split.
When Locklear was visiting Mainland China, he said he was not concerned about war breaking out in the South China Sea. The U.S. military has an obligation to ensure freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and free passage through other waters around the world. As for territorial disputes, he said Washington does not side with any of the parties in these disputes. He hoped that the controversies will be settled peacefully. But he said he was concerned about the growth of the PLA, and whether Beijing could ensure transparency. When interviewed by the New York Times Locklear stressed that the United States hoped the rise of China would lead to a constructive partnership.
These words naturally grated on Beijing's ears. Beijing suspects that its exclusion from the RIMPAC exercises was deliberate. Washington was using the opportunity to rattle its sabers and bolster its military alliances. As a result, Beijing has accelerated trials of its aircraft carrier in Dalian naval harbor. It hopes to quickly get up to speed. It hopes to weaponize its space technology. These are all seen responses to Washington's intentions. Beijing's live fire exercises in waters near the Zhoushan Islands is seen as a rival gesture.
Most Asian-Pacific countries participating in the RIMPAC exercise have doubts about the rise of Mainland China. The Huangyan Island and Diaoyutai Islands territorial disputes have heated up. Washington and Beijing are both seeking hegemony. This leaves these Asian Pacific countries in an awkward position. They are worried about Beijing's hegemony. They hope Washington will not withdraw from Asia. But they also worry if they get too close to Washington, they may anger Beijing and undermine economic and trade relations.
In many ways the Republic of China is similar to these Asia-Pacific countries. Economically it is dependent upon the Mainland market. Militarily however, it is dependent upon Washington. This is the reason for its vacillating foreign policy. Take the South China Sea dispute. The ROC is one of six nations claiming sovereignty, But its voice remains unheard. Beijing advocates cross-Strait cooperation in defense of Chinese sovereignty in the South China Sea. But according to Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Washington has discussed its South China Sea policy with Taipei. Washington says that Taipei is "very, very careful" about the Diaoyutai Islands issue. both privately and publicly. Taipei's situation is particularly delicate and sensitive.
The fate of Taiwan remains the most sensitive and difficult problem in Washington/Beijing relations. Cross-Strait relations are different from bilateral relations between Mainland China and other countries. That is why Washington cannot invite Taipei to participate in the RIMPAC exercises. Washington/Taipei relations are actually about arms sales. Arms sales reflect a tacit understanding concerning security. Retiring AIT Director William Stanton criticized Taipei's reduced defense budget, saying it has led to a cross-Strait military imbalance. The ROC Ministry of Defense is stepping up fighter procurements. It is unwilling to see Washington/Taipei relations suffer.
The RIMPAC exercises reflect the confrontation between Washington and Beijing. They reflect changes in the regional situation. They influence the subtle four-way relationship between Taipei, Washington, Tokyo, and Beijing. Taipei may not be able to respond. Maybe it should not respond. But it must confront a changeable and complex situation, It must negotiate its its way through a political minefield.