Despite fears that it might be cancelled due to the coronavirus, the multilateral RIMPAC maritime exercise will kick off today off the coast of Hawaii. The two-week exercise, which will run to 31 August, will see a smaller contingent from Southeast Asia due to operational restrictions surrounding the pandemic.
Five months ago, as the coronavirus began its rapid and alarming spread around the world, it looked very doubtful that the US Pacific Fleet (PACFLEET) would be able to host the world’s largest multinational naval drills, the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise scheduled for June and July.
Indeed, two US nuclear-powered aircraft carriers were confined to port in Japan and Guam as Covid-19 spread among the crews.
In April, however, the Hawaii-based PACFLEET issued invitations to 25 Indo-Pacific countries to participate in RIMPAC 2020. The drills have been pushed back from June to mid-August and whittled down from the usual five weeks to two. And due to Covid-19 concerns, the exercise will be an all-sea event to reduce the risk of infections for military personnel and residents of Hawaii. The usual amphibious landing element and on-shore social and sporting events (the latter having become a regular fixture for interactions between naval personnel from the participant countries) have all been cut. The at-sea exercise will include anti-submarine warfare and maritime intercept training. It will also feature a live-fire exercise in which a decommissioned US naval ship will be used for target practice and sunk.
Nevertheless, the impact of Covid-19 has clearly affected the operational readiness of armed forces across the Indo-Pacific region. Although PACFLEET has yet to release a full list of participating countries, press reports indicate that only 11 countries will participate – Australia, Brunei, Canada, France, India, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea and the US – less than half the 26 at RIMPAC 2018.
When the exercises were announced in April, there were grumblings in the Aloha State. Even though the presence of international navies pumps an estimated US$50 million into the state’s coffers, there were fears that the exercise could lead to a spike in Covid-19 infections from which Hawaii has been largely spared due to its geographical isolation. The Cancel Rimpac Coalition delivered a petition containing more than 12,000 names to Hawaii’s state governor David Ige, calling on him to cancel the exercises. To assuage these concerns, sailors participating in RIMPAC 2020 were subject to two weeks’ quarantine in their home countries before sailing to Hawaii. In addition, no shore leave will be allowed.
China was not invited to RIMPAC 2020 … Hell hath no fury like a participant scorned; understandably, China has fired broadsides at RIMPAC 2020.
China was not invited to RIMPAC 2020. Although it participated in the 2014 and 2016 iterations of the exercise, it was disinvited from RIMPAC 2018 after the Trump administration accused it of reneging on a promise not to militarise the South China Sea dispute. Nevertheless, the PLA-Navy did send a surveillance ship to spy on the exercises. The PLA-Navy could well be an uninvited presence again at RIMPAC 2020.
Hell hath no fury like a participant scorned; understandably, China has fired broadsides at RIMPAC 2020. The Global Times sniffed that the US is using RIMPAC 2020 to “showcase its strength, its military muscle, and more importantly to test the loyalty of its allies and partners.” Scorn is likely to turn to outrage if, as reported, Taiwan is invited to observe the drills. This would be in keeping with the 2021 US National Defense Authorization Act which calls on the US to strengthen defence cooperation with Taiwan, including military exercises such as RIMPAC.
Southeast Asia’s naval presence off Hawaii this month will be reduced from two years ago, mainly due to Covid-19. At RIMPAC 2018, seven Southeast Asian countries were represented: Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines sent warships, while Brunei, Thailand and Vietnam contributed military personnel who were deployed on board US naval vessels. Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar were not invited due to restrictions on US military cooperation with those three countries.
This year only three Southeast Asian countries have sent warships. Brunei has deployed the off-shore patrol vessel KDB Darulehson. Singapore has sent the Formidable-class frigate RSS Supreme. The Philippines has dispatched its brand new South Korean-built frigate BRP Jose Rizal. The Philippine Navy’s participation has not been affected by President Duterte’s recent decision to ban the country’s warships from exercising with foreign navies in the South China Sea so as not to annoy China. Surprisingly, despite its growing defence ties with the US, Vietnam decided not to send a warship this year.
Operational restrictions imposed so that regional states can contain the pandemic is the main reason why fewer Southeast Asian countries accepted PACFLEET’s invitation to RIMPAC 2020. Normally exercises such as these provide an invaluable opportunity for regional navies to enhance training and interoperability with the US Navy, as well as other important maritime partners such as Australia and Japan. These opportunities are especially important at a time of rising tensions in the South China Sea, when the Southeast Asian claimants are keener than ever to protect their sovereign rights in their exclusive economic zones into which China has been encroaching with renewed vigour over the past few months. All that will be missing at RIMPAC 2020 is the hard-earned pleasure of sipping Mai Tais in the bars of Waikiki.
Ian Storey is Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.