Guess Who’s Coming to the World’s Biggest Naval Exercise

Chinese ships to join U.S., allied vessels in RIMPAC 2014 war game

Today American and Chinese warships are leaving Guam … together. Not as enemies, but as friends. Having sunk several floating targets in a gunnery exercise, the combined task force is continuing on to Pearl Harbor. There the U.S. and Chinese vessels will join the world’s largest naval war multinational exercise, altogether involving 22 countries.

America’s biannual Rim of the Pacific war game, or RIMPAC, kicks off on June 26. This year Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Colombia, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, South Korea, The Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Tonga and the United Kingdom are all participating.

It’s the first time China has sent ships. And not everyone is thrilled.

RIMPAC dates back to 1971. The United States needed to maintain credibility as a military power in Asia as it withdrew troops from Vietnam. A huge naval war game was just the thing. At RIMPAC, ships, planes, subs and other naval forces simulate intensive naval battles. Officers and crews swap tactics. The idea is for every navy to sail away from the war game a better fighting force—and a better ally.

For decades, China understandably sat out RIMPAC. Especially lately, China has violently clashed with its neighbors over disputed islands in the China Seas.

Beijing isn’t a great ally ... to anyone, really. Indeed, the U.S. and many other navies tailor their ships and tactics specifically for defeating Chinese forces, in the unlikely event of major war.

Invitation … accepted

Still, in the interest of world peace, U.S. Navy secretary Ray Mabus invited China to RIMPAC in 2012. To everyone’s surprise, the Chinese didn’t immediately say no. They eventually said yes.

The invitation held, even as the U.S.-Chinese relationship deteriorated. China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning almost rammed the American cruiser USS Cowpens. U.S. authorities indicted People’s Liberation Army officers for Internet espionage. Still, Washington did not rescind its invitation—and Beijing maintained its RSVP.

Beijing sent four ships. The Type 052C missile destroyer Haikou, pictured here, plus the Type 054A missile frigate Yueyang, fleet replenishment ship Qiandaohu and the hospital ship Peace Ark. The flotilla includes two helicopters and a naval boarding unit, sailors trained in SWAT-type operations.

Haikou is roughly comparable to the American Arleigh Burke-class destroyers in both sensors and armament. She has a phased-array radar theoretically equal to the U.S. Aegis radar and can track and shoot down several aircraft and missiles simultaneously.

Haikou packs 48 HQ-9 long-range surface-to-air missiles, eight YJ-62 anti-ship missiles and a 100-millimeter gun. She and her eight sisters are world-class ships.

The frigate Yueyang can do a little bit of everything. Her 32 HQ-16 short-range surface-to-air missiles can protect her and nearby ships. She carries eight YJ-83 anti-ship missiles and torpedoes and a helicopter for hunting submarines. China has built 18 Type 054As.

Qingdaohu is a replenishment oiler that refuels other three ships at sea. China’s RIMPAC flotilla will be away for at least three months, so it’s important to bring plenty of fuel.

Peace Ark is China’s hospital ship. She has 300 hospital beds, 20 intensive care units and eight operating rooms. Beijing has sent the ship across the Pacific and even into the Carribbean on humanitarian tours, most recently to The Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.

Chance to spy

RIMPAC could be a chance for China to study the military capabilities of the United States and its allies. In particular, Beijing could learn carrier operations and anti-submarine skills—and some day use them against America and its friends.

But that’s unlikely. RIMPAC’s participants are well aware of what skills China would like to improve on, and can minimize China’s ability to observe them. Don’t expect the event organizers to invite Yueyang to the sub-hunting exercise.

Moreover, the Chinese will operate under command of the U.S. Coast Guard, which suggests that the Chinese don’t want to be anywhere near the Japanese and—more importantly—they will mainly attend the maritime law-enforcement phase of the exercise, far away from the combat-oriented phases.

Besides, the United States has more to gain from hosting the Chinese than the Chinese do in attending the war game. U.S. analysts will be able to examine China’s latest ships up close. Analysts will be listening very carefully if Haikou turns on her Type 346 and Type 517 radars

Expect RIMPAC planners to invite Haikou to the air-defense exercise and encourage the vessel’s crew to shoot down a drone or two with their fancy radars and missiles. For the U.S., knowing the capabilities of these sensors will go a long way toward countering them.

But mutual spying isn’t really the point. The United States invited China to RIMPAC to build trust. U.S.-Chinese military ties have become frayed in recent years. RIMPAC could help mend them.

The greatest lesson China may learn at RIMPAC is that the whole world benefits when leading military powers get along. From the Americans’ perspective, RIMPAC is part of a sustained effort to improve the Sino-American relationship. That the Chinese are attending is an encouraging sign they feel the same way.

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