Rimpac: Balance of power in the Pacific?
In the early ‘70s, the Soviet Union accomplished one of its long dreams to have the status of maritime power. This achievement was signaled to the West through exercises Okean ‘70; the biggest naval exercise carried out after WWII. The United States created an alliance of western countries in the Pacific to contain the communist expansion. It was the beginning of the naval exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC).
RIMPAC, which focus was warfighting exercises, was aimed to train in the use of weapons and standard operation procedures (SOP) to cope with the Soviet Navy. However, after the demise of the Soviet Union, this exercise should have been stopped. There was no enemy to balance against. Nonetheless, the exercises continued until these days.
This paper will try to explain the reasons of why this exercise did not vanish with the Cold War, and will also try to define how can it be interpreted through the lens of alliance formation and balance of power theories. The research will analyze the post-Cold War period and future scenarios involving the rise of China.
The decade of the ‘70 was a hard one for the United States (US) foreign policy. The Indo-Pakistan war, the rapprochement with China, the end of the Vietnam war, the 1974 oil-shock recession which dramatically demonstrated the interdependency and volatility of the international economy; the Chinese invasion of Vietnam; and finally, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The world was unstable, and the threat of Communist expansion was increasing. The Soviet Navy helped to catalyze this gloomy picture of the world. Helmed by Admiral Gorshkov, the Soviet Navy, started a massive buildup of naval assets to conquer the blue waters. In 1970, its project came to life, the Soviet Navy executed exercise Okean ’70, which comprised more than 200 ships and aircrafts; it was the biggest naval exercise carried out by any navy after World War Two.
Meanwhile, the US Navy received less and less budget. The ships were rusty, many well over 20 years of service, and there was no certainty that a conventional clash versus the Soviet Navy could be won.
In Okean exercise, Admiral Gorshkov reunited the Northern, the Baltic, and Pacific fleets to engage in a full-scale landing operation against an enemy country in both, the North Pacific and North Atlantic’s theatres simultaneously. It was a demonstration of the Soviet Naval power, aimed at the US. The message was clear; the Soviet Union was no longer just continental power.
In 1971, the US reacted to this demonstration of power and organized the naval exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) with the participation of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the US. This exercise showed the will to gather the means to contain the naval expansion of the Soviet Union in the Pacific.
RIMPAC has been carried out every two years since 1971 in the areas of Hawaii and San Diego. Rimpac “…was an attempt to contain the naval expansion of the Soviet Union into the Pacific”(Niemann, 2012, p. 423), and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, RIMPAC slowly opened its admission to Pacific Ocean’s countries, and they responded sending their assets. Japan, South Korea, Chile, and the United Kingdom were the few countries that joined. In later years, especially after the pivot to the Pacific announced by the Obama administration, the exercise thundered from the first five countries, (many of them fought together in the Korean and Vietnam war), until the 25 that are today. Russia participated in the 2012 version, and China joined in 2014 with a large number of ships.
RIMPAC right now is the biggest multinational naval exercise of the world. It is comprised of 25 countries, more than 200 ships, and more than 25,000 personnel. Now the question that arises is why this exercise did not vanish after the collapse of the Soviet Union?
RIMPAC after the Cold War
Realist and neorealist agree that the balance of power is the crucial relationship between states in the anarchic self-help international system. Major powers tend to balance their military might in order to avoid been overrun by a rising power or by a threatening hegemon. They do this in the process of alliances, just as Stephen Walt mentioned: “when entering an alliance, states may either balance (ally in opposition to the principal source of danger) or bandwagon (ally with the state that poses the major threat).”(Walt, 1985, p. 4) Examples of balancing alliances can be found in Great Britain’s behavior with the Soviet Union during WWII, balancing the Nazi’s threat; or the US rapprochement with China in the ‘70s to balance the Soviet Union. Examples of bandwagons can be found in the alliance of Italy and Rumania at the end of WWI or in the alliance of France and the Soviet Union versus Japan in 1945, at the end of WWII.
RIMPAC, as an attempt of military alliance to contain and balance a threatening Soviet Union in the Western Pacific Ocean, falls in the first category. The threatened major power created a coalition of partner navies. This case is an example of the alignment of secondary states, as put forth by Kenneth Waltz, “secondary states if they are free to choose, flock to the weaker side; for it is the stronger side that threatens them. On the weaker side, they are both more appreciated and safer, provided, of course, that the coalition they join achieves enough defensive or deterrent strength to dissuade adversaries from attacking.”(Waltz, 1979, p. 127)
The fall of the Soviet Union and the avoidance of World War III represents one of the major successes of the 20th century and one of the few cases in Graham Allison’s Thucydides’ Trap, in which a rising power has confronted a ruling power, and the result has not ended in war. Also, the Soviet collapse should have represented the end of the US balancing alliance, if as like Kenneth Waltz mentioned: “alliances are organized against a perceived threat. We know from the balance of power theory as well as from history that war-winning coalitions collapse on the morrow of victory, the more surely if it is a decisive one.”(Waltz, 1993, p. 75) There was no threat to balance against, then why this RIMPAC continued until today?
Geoffrey Till, the renown naval strategist, classified the spectrum of naval tasks that navies can do. He pointed out two significant areas: Wartime and Naval Diplomacy. In Wartime, they perform the task to win the war at sea, whether against a relatively major or minor opposition rival. In Naval Diplomacy or peacetime, he added three subsets of tasks: coercive, alliance building and international maritime assistance.
RIMPAC from the wartime exercise of the Cold War era, shifted its objectives to perform as an exercise of naval diplomacy, to be classified in the alliance building subset. The characterization given by Till for this subset are: First, joint naval action responding a threat to common security, risks and responsibilities can be shared. Second, co-operative naval activity, in support of a regional security collectivity or a confidence-building measure.
However, if as Waltz stated, alliance lasts until victory is achieved, and on the other hand, the US as hegemon, following the theory of the balance of power, should have been balanced against by other countries. However, what can be seen in this RIMPAC case is neither an end of the alliance nor a balancing of power against the US. So how can it be explained?
A second theory put forth by John Mearsheimer is an exception to the rule of the balance of power. He argues that the geographical position of the US, with two oceans acting as a buffer from the world powers, means that the US is prevented from projecting enough power to pursue hegemony. In other words, the US represents a status quo power, and it will not be required to be balanced against.
The argument is not persuasive and seems irrational to negate the size and capabilities that the US armed forces have. Putting the status aside, the US is capable of reaching every corner of the world with its deployed fleets in every ocean. In military spending, following “The Military Balance” report published by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) mentioned that in 2017, the United States, spent more than the sum of the next ten following countries in the list, representing 38.2 % of defense expenditure in the entire world. (“Chapter Two,” 2018, p. 19) To explain further, the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate its on-shore balance, projecting its power from the sea.
The third and last explanation may be found in the words of Kenneth Waltz. As time passed by, no country balanced the US so; he claimed “Theory enables one to say that a new balance of power will form but not to say how long it will take . . . In our perspective, the new balance is emerging slowly; in historical perspectives, it will come in the blink of an eye.”(qtd. in Lieber & Alexander, 2005, p. 111) So, this period could mean a transition until a new superpower rise and challenge the hegemon.
Reaching the end of the hegemon time of the US, for this study, it can be said there is no actual reason for finishing RIMPAC and balancing against the US. On the other hand, the arguments described earlier in this paper about the advantages of naval diplomacy, made not only logical but useful to keep executing this exercise of alliance building for the next period of study.
RIMPAC after the rebalance to Asia-Pacific
The US rebalance to the Asia-Pacific policy of Obama’s administration was a change in, priorities from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region, and RIMPAC was a significant beneficiary. From 14 participant countries in 2010, the numbers rose until 22 countries in 2012, including the Russian Navy (and later the Chinese Navy) for the first time, and became the world largest maritime exercise of the world.
It was the time of the Asia-Pacific, and RIMPAC was a diplomatic-military tool employed by the US. The increase in almost twofold of participant navies in the exercise showed that the resolution of the US is playing its cards among Asia-Pacific countries. These efforts made possible to incorporate the Chinese, Russian, Philippines, and Vietnamese Navy for the first time, along with countries like Australia, Chile, South Korea, India, Japan, and the US among others. Former Secretary of State George Shultz referred this diplomacy-military type of exercise: “the military provided the umbrella underneath which all our diplomatic cards were played.”(qtd. in Reich & Dombrowski, 2018, p. 67)
Usually, like everything in life, things go well until they do not. Naval exercises are not any different. In 2014, Russia was not invited due to its annexation of Crimea, and Thailand Navy was uninvited due to a coup d’état in their country. China, however, participated with the higher amount of means after the US. It was the first time that the People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) participated in a multinational exercise. Due to the restraints of the US law called National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000, which forbids Department of Defense from engaging in any military to military activities that might improve PLA with the exceptions of search and rescue, and humanitarian operations or exercises. Hence, PLAN was scheduled to be part of RIMPAC in those roles.
The 2014 version of the exercise finished with only one incident; a Chinese spy ship was gathering intelligence during the exercises. This situation caused an uproar in the US elite’s opinion. Some of them argued that China should have been expelled form RIMPAC 2014. Nonetheless, PLAN also participated in RIMPAC 2016, and in 2018, one month prior the start of the exercise –at the same time as the commencement of the trade war between US and China– PLAN was disinvited, due to the militarization of the South China Sea’s disputed islands, charge that Beijing obviously rejects. Nick Childs, Senior Naval Analyst of IISS, mentioned that “The US move perhaps also reflected the realization in the Pentagon of the advances China has made in just the last two years in developing the military potential of the contested features it has been working on.”(Childs, n.d.)
What is China doing now and how it can affect RIMPAC in the future
China looks the future remembering its past, especially the so-called “century of humiliation” which Graham Allison describe it as: “a century of Chinese weakness [that] led to exploitation and national humiliation by Western colonialists and Japan.”(Allison, 2015) To further expand this topic, Gabriel Collins mentioned: “From 1840 and 1949, by Chinese analysts’ count, their country suffered 479 violations of its sovereignty, 84 of which were considered “large scale.” Nearly all of these assaults came by sea.”(Collins, 2010, p. 21)
Since Mao until the Deng’s era, the objective of PLAN was to defend against a foreign invasion coming by sea. Nowadays, the main objectives and threats perceived by Chinese analyst are: “upholding sovereignty (e.g., vis—a—vis Taiwan), maritime disputes with neighbors, and piracy and military blockade by hostile outside powers as key threats to China’s maritime security interest.”(Collins, 2010, p. 21)
The rise of PLAN preponderancy in its region is increasing. Just in 2017, PLAN was invited by Russia, to join naval exercises in the north of the Sea of Japan, and its first indigenous made aircraft carrier is conducting sea trials in the South China Sea. The rise of China is threatening free navigation through sea lanes, and the US Navy should step up and venture in harm’s way. However, what does it mean in the balance of power theory?
Moreover, how does it relate to RIMPAC? Will East and South Asian countries balance the rise of China with US lead alliances? Will they join China as a form of bandwagon? Will they accommodate?
In the future, as China starts to become more assertive in its foreign policy, its popular hot spots like Taiwan’ status, the Senkaku/Diayou and Paracel’s disputes, and the nine-dash line in the South China Sea, will tend to lead to sea clashes in those areas. These encounters will become more evident if it follows the trend of the use of force used by the US when it rose to its primacy of nowadays. Kenneth Waltz mentioned that use of force as another mean of politics: “… in the roughly thirty years following 1946, the United States used military means in one way or another to intervene in the affairs of other countries about twice as often as did the Soviet Union.”(Waltz, 1993, p. 48)
As the Chinese’s rise continues, there is a question about its implications in the future. What will happen with secondary states during the struggle of power between the US and China? In Kenneth Waltz words, “Balance-of-power theory leads one to expect that states if they are free to do so, will flock to the weaker side. The stronger, not the weaker side, threatens them, if only by pressing its preferred policies on other states.”(Waltz, 1993, p. 74) In that case, it could be argued that the US, as the stronger in the struggle, represents the threat. However, with its current naval diplomatic policy, seems to assure to its Pacific neighbors, that there is no reason to feel threatened. To expand in this topic, it must be remembered that even Vietnam joined RIMPAC in its version 2018, for the first time, and in early March 2018 the USS Carl Vinson became the first US aircraft carrier to visit Vietnam since the end of the war in 1975.
So, it is probably China, with its disputes with so many neighboring smaller countries, and its unwillingness to articulate the South China Sea’s claims in a way consistent with the Law of the Sea that seems more threatening to smaller powers and make them flock to the US side. To complement this point, Robert Jervis argued that “international coalitions are more readily held together by fear than by hope of gain.”(Jervis, 1978, p. 205) Following that argument, there is no reason to balance the US if it meant to maintain the status quo in the region.
Another argument could be to contain China applying Cold War strategies; this means applying coercive diplomacy or merely brute force wherever China seeks expansion. The backlash in the use of this policy, and what could cause, is resumed in words of Peter Mendelson, British politician, “If you treat China as an enemy, then it is likely to become one.”
Whatever the answer of what should be done with China, when the need arises, the US Navy will have to employ its cards and draw support from its allies in the Western Pacific. RIMPAC is one of the tools that it has and, so far, has proven effective in confidence building and creating networks for military operations.
RIMPAC, as the biggest naval exercise of the world, has been adapting since its first version in 1971, from warfighting type to the less complex kind of exercises, like noncombatant military operations or disaster relief, after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
The realist theory of balance of power has been used to evaluate the reason why this exercise did not stop been executed, after the fall of the Soviet Union. This research was done following Waltz’s theory that wining-war coalitions collapse after their victories. However, after revised different theories put forth by realist scholars, the findings showed that RIMPAC shifted, from its Cold War objective to peacetime military diplomacy. From the small, warfighting exercises coalition of western navies, to a bigger and less complex objectives, confidence-building exercise that it is today.
In this paper has also been studied the possibilities for the rise of China and its implication in smaller countries of the region, arriving at the conclusion that is better to have China as an allied in confidence-building measures, than, the US, to appear as a threatening major power. This last action may cause some allies to flock to China’s side. However, it should be used carefully; otherwise, it may seem as an appeasement to China, just like Great Britain was with Nazi Germany in Munich, before WWII.
At the end of the day, since its inception in 1971 until now, RIMPAC has served US interest applying military-diplomacy around Pacific countries.