America musters the world’s biggest naval exercise
THE REAL draw of the biennial “Rim of the Pacific” exercise, or RIMPAC, is the cocktail party. The world’s largest naval drills, hosted by America in Hawaii, offer sailors an opportunity not only to hone their skills with friendly navies from across the world—including the chance to sink a clapped-out American warship as target practice—but also to cement alliances in a more bibulous and convivial fashion aboard one another’s destroyers, perhaps followed by after-parties in the insalubrious corners of Honolulu. This year’s exercise, which runs from August 17th to 31st, will be a more abstemious affair. With Hawaii’s covid-count rising, social events ashore are cancelled and fewer countries are scheduled to attend.
Though the drills may be pared down, the stakes are higher than ever. With the relationship between America and China in apparent freefall, military tensions between the two rivals are growing across the so-called first island chain in the western Pacific, stretching from Malaysia in the south to Japan in the North. In the South China Sea, for instance, China has tangled with the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia in recent months by harassing fishing boats, stalking others’ oil-exploration vessels and sending its own survey ships into disputed waters.
America has also entered the fray more enthusiastically. In July it formally repudiated China’s claim to offshore resources in the South China Sea as “completely unlawful”, dispatched a pair of aircraft-carriers to the area for the first time in almost six years and held joint exercises with Australia and Japan. China’s reply was to conduct live-fire drills, peppering naval targets with what state media claimed were more than 3,000 projectiles. The mood remains febrile. Last week the Philippines’ navy chief complained that China’s navy was trying to provoke his ships into “firing the first shot”, and on August 14th an American carrier returned.
The temperature is also rising around Taiwan, the democratic island that China claims as its territory. In July, Taiwan’s envoy to America was allowed to enter the State Department for an official meeting—something virtually unheard of since America cut formal diplomatic ties with the island in 1979. That was a “a big deal”, noted Drew Thompson, a former Pentagon official “and a change in longstanding US policy”. Then on August 10th Alex Azar, America’s health secretary, visited Taiwan and met President Tsai Ing-wen, becoming the most senior American official to conduct a formal visit in decades.
Almost immediately, Chinese fighter-jets crossed the so-called median line of the narrow strait which divides Taiwan from the mainland. That is thought to be only the third occasion on which they have done so intentionally in the past two decades. On August 13th the People’s Liberation Army upped the pressure by announcing military exercises off the northern and southern ends of Taiwan in response to what it called America’s “serious wrong signals to ‘Taiwan independence’ forces”. As those drills unfolded, Taiwan’s government said that it planned to boost defence spending by $1.4bn, an increase of over 10% on current levels. The purchase of 66 new F-16 aircraft for $8bn, America’s largest sale of warplanes to Taiwan since 1992, was finalised on August 14th. Taiwan also hopes to buy American drones, anti-ship missiles and naval mines to help deter an invasion.
If that were not enough, trouble is also brewing a short distance to the north-east of Taiwan over the Japanese-controlled, but Chinese-claimed, Senkaku islands (known by China as the Diaoyu islands). Japan alleges that Chinese ships have increasingly sailed into the islands’ territorial waters. Japanese officials now fear a surge in the number of Chinese fishing boats, many of which are thought to be paramilitary vessels in civilian guise, after a self-imposed ban by China expires on August 16th. The islands are covered by the mutual-defence treaty between America and Japan. On July 29th Lieutenant-General Kevin Schneider, commander of American forces in Japan, said that America was “100%, absolutely steadfast in its commitment to help the government of Japan with the situation in the Senkakus”, promising to help with surveillance of the area.
With so many bones of contention, and with its military edge over China eroding over the past decade, America is understandably keen on cultivating old and new friends alike. That is part of the point of gatherings like RIMPAC. James Stavridis, a former American admiral, has noted that the exercise serves as a “visible signal of the most important militaries of the vast Pacific Basin being willing to share training, tactics and technology”. It also serves to highlight an enduring American advantage in its competition with China: the idea that China could persuade so many diverse and friendly countries to gather for meaningful war games is implausible.
Although the pandemic means that only about ten countries and 20 ships will take part this year, RIMPAC has grown steadily in size over the past decade. Attendees in 2018 included not only America’s stalwart treaty allies, like Australia, Japan and South Korea, but also old enemies, like Vietnam, embryonic friends, like India, and outside powers deepening their involvement in Asia, like France and Britain. (China, which had been invited to the 2014 and 2016 iterations of RIMPAC as a gesture of goodwill, was disinvited from the 2018 drills because of its perceived aggression in the South China Sea.)
That reflects a widespread and growing concern over China’s increasingly assertive behaviour, such as its incursions on the India-China border this year and its economic arm-twisting of Australia. “Beijing knows full well that it currently faces numerous challenges, both internally with its economy having taken a hit from the pandemic, as well as externally with countries—particularly in the West—expressing uncertainty over Beijing’s trajectory,” says Veerle Nouwens of the Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank in London. But even as countries reassess their ties to China, the air is heavy with a sense of doubt over America’s staying-power and dependability in the region, particularly as the military balance continues to tilt in China’s favour.
Consider the case of Australia, which on July 1st published a gloomy update to its defence strategy. “The prospect of high-intensity military conflict in the Indo-Pacific is less remote than in the past,” it warned; Australia could no longer count on having ten years’ warning of an attack. The paper acknowledged that only America could offer protection against nuclear weapons. But for other contingencies, Australia would have to hedge its bets by deepening ties with new partners, like Japan, India and Indonesia, “tak[ing] greater responsibility for [its] own security”; and enhancing its “self-reliant ability to deliver deterrent effects”. Even America's staunchest friends are not certain that it will be around when things get rough.
Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/international/2020/08/16/america-musters-the-worlds-biggest-naval-exercise
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