In late May, the Department of Defense announced that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) had been disinvited from this year’s Rim of the Pacific (RimPac) exercise. I deeply appreciated this announcement. China’s prior RimPac participation had formalized a policy of accommodating the PRC’s bad behavior in the maritime domain. The Pentagon spokesperson rightly justified this year’s cancellation decision by stating, “The United States is committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific” and that “China’s continued militarization of disputed features in the South China Sea only serves to raise tensions and destabilize the region.” Notably, he stated, “China’s behavior is inconsistent with the principles and purposes of the RimPac exercise.”
The Navy’s public information effort about RimPac has been strong—better than ever. For instance, when China was disinvited and they sent a spy ship, the messaging from U.S. Pacific Fleet public affairs was quick and direct, and Navy public affairs has put out a lot of information on RimPac exercise specifics.
- The Third Fleet proudly announced that RimPac 2018 was “the world’s largest international maritime exercise” and would included a range of scenarios such as “disaster relief, amphibious operations, anti-piracy work, missile shots, mine clearance, maritime security, anti-submarine warfare and air defense operations”.
- Pacific Fleet public affairs highlighted that RimPac would include many “firsts.” For instance, this would be the first time Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Brazil, and Israel were invited to participate in the exercise. For the first time, New Zealand is serving as Sea Combat Commander, and Chile is serving as Combined Force Maritime Component Commander. Chile’s role marks the first time a non-founding member of RimPac is holding a component commander leadership position.
- Other firsts announced by fleet press releases include the live firing of a Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) from a U.S. Air Force aircraft, antiship missiles launched by the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force, and a Naval Strike Missile fired from a launcher on the back of a Palletized Load System by the U.S. Army. Likewise, it was the first time the Republic of the Philippines dispatched warships to Hawaii.
- The public also was informed that, for the first time, the Third Fleet command center would be located in Pearl Harbor, moving forward from San Diego.
This year’s RimPac public affairs teams are energized and informing the public of the facts of the exercise. One outcome, according to a Factiva search, is that already RimPac 2018 has been addressed in more articles worldwide than RimPac 2016 or 2014. From 27 June through 13 July, 432 English-only articles referred to RimPac.
But what of the overall mission to drive national and international dialogue reinforcing U.S. commitment to the stated exercise goal: encouraging the belief that sustaining cooperative relationships among exercise participants is critical to ensuring the safety of sea lanes and security on the world's oceans. What about using RimPac to build consensus in Washington for a stronger Navy?
On that account, the evidence is less compelling.
A review of the Defense News “Early Bird” and the Chief of Navy Information (CHINFO) News Clips from 27 June to 13 July reveals few about the exercise. For instance, during the first 12 week days of the exercise, the “Early Bird” only ran three articles about RimPac out of 712 articles posted. Surprisingly, CHINFO News Clips ran just 13 RimPac-related articles out of 277 posted during the same period.
DoD and CHINFO News Clips are important because they are often a major source of information for Members of Congress, staffers, and other key policy makers, academics, journalists, and influencers.
The larger issue is whether the Navy and DoD’s communications strategy is effectively confronting the threat China presents to U.S. and regional security in the maritime domain. Directly related to this is whether or not this effort is building the body of evidence required to justify the increase in resources the U.S. Navy must have to grow the Fleet to deter the PRC, or defeat it in war at sea if necessary.
The question of how to inform and influence U.S. allies is equally important. The evidence is discouraging. Accounting for all languages during the 27 June-15 July timeframe, Factiva reflects 458 articles that specifically report on RimPac 2018. Of those, there were only nine in Australia, eight in Japan, nine in South Korea, 37 in Vietnamese, 21 in Indonesia, seven in Singapore, and fewer than a dozen in the Philippines.
What can be done to amplify the messages the RimPac sends to the world? The messages of solidarity, teamwork, international cooperation, shared values, freedom of the seas, and collective maritime security are powerful.
High-level guidance, like the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy are on the mark with respect to classifying China as a primary security challenge. However, there are competing influences that take national leaders’ focus off the maritime threat posed by the PLAN. The cumulative effect of these competing influences causes the under-prioritization of the PRC threat.
The Secretary of the Navy, Chief of Naval Operations, and Commander, Indo-Pacific Command, could help ensure better media coverage. They could also exercise their bully pulpits to explain China’s maritime expansion, the threat it poses, and the need for a larger U.S. Navy. In a related move, they could petition to release information that is unnecessarily classified to better educate the public on the threats the PRC presents—including information on PLAN activities in the South and East China seas, illegal military fortifications on contested islands and shoals, and bullying of other nations’ fishing fleets by China’s Coast Guard.
Excluding China from this year’s RimPac was the right move and a good start to telling the world of the threat China poses to international maritime security. Going forward, RimPac provides ample opportunities to signal to the American public and the world the need for a larger, more capable U.S. Navy and strong maritime partnerships to maintain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. It is not enough to publicize what is happening in the exercise. If the United States is going to provide credible deterrence against China and its unilateral expansionist activities, then RimPac must be a key piece of a broader communications strategy to make a compelling case for a larger, more capable Navy. In other words, Navy leaders need to talk the walk.
Captain Fanell concluded a near 30-year career as a naval intelligence officer specializing in Indo-Pacific security affairs, with an emphasis on China's navy and operations. His most recent assignment was the director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
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Photo caption: The USS O'Kane (DDG-77) fires a Standard Missile (SM-2) during RimPac on 16 July 2018.