In June 2014, the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) will for the first time join the biennial Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) -- the world's largest international maritime warfare exercise. According to the U.S. Pacific Fleet website around 25,000 personnel from 23 nations, along with 49 surface ships, 6 submarines, and more than 200 aircraft will participate. The PLAN has dispatched the missile destroyer Haikou, the missile frigate Yueyang, the supply ship Qiandaohu and the hospital ship Peace Ark -- all in all more than 1,100 men, including a commando unit and a diving squad -- towards Hawaii. According to open source intelligence the Haikou -- a Type 052C destroyer - is equipped with a modern naval weapons system based on the American Aegis Combat System (ACS).
China's participation in the RIMPAC exercise is a clear signal that neither the United States nor the People's Republic are interested in a deterioration of military-to-military relations. In fact, RIMPAC 2014 is part of a larger effort of senior military and civilian leadership in both countries to deepen military ties. During U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's last visit to China both sides agreed to an army-to-army dialogue, and an Asia-Pacific security dialogue between the assistant secretary of defense for Asia-Pacific security affairs and the director of the Chinese Defense Ministry's foreign affairs office, among other things. Chinese President Xi Jinping already called for a "new model of military relationship" between the two nations at the Sunnylands summit in June 2013.
In China, participation in RIMPAC 2014 is seen as a concrete achievement in carrying out Xi Jinping's call for stronger U.S.-China military relations. PLA Deputy Navy Commander Xu Hongmeng called PLAN involvement in RIMPAC an "important part" of stronger U.S.-China military relations. Senior Captain Zhang Junshe of China's Naval Research Institute stated that RIMPAC would allow the PLA Navy to call into service capabilities related to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, search and rescue, and anti-piracy operations.
According to Alexander Sullivan, Research Associate at the Center for a New American Security, China wants to demonstrate with its participation in RIMPAC that it is a serious regional maritime and political power -- equal to or greater than Russia and India, who participated in the 2012 iteration -- and to burnish its credentials on cooperation and confidence-building.
"The PRC views closer military-military relations with the United States as a critical element in its concept of a new type of great-power relations, which seeks to elevate the US-China relationship above others in the region," underscores Sullivan.
"The People's Liberation Army Navy gets to both advertise some new capabilities and garner sorely needed experience in expeditionary operations and naval professionalism." Yet there is a limit to military-to-military cooperation.
"The exercise must, by U.S. law, be designed to prevent China from gleaning any warfighting advantage, so the results for China will mostly be at the level of political symbolism and basic habits of communication between navies," states Sullivan.
The U.S. Congress when passing the National Defense Authorization Act for the Fiscal Year 2000 (FY 2000 NDAA) prohibited contacts between both sides that would "create a national security risk due to an inappropriate exposure". The NDAA lists 12 operational areas ranging from advanced combined-arms and joint combat operations to arms sales or military-related technology transfers that are off-limits. Chinese officials continue to point out that FY 2000 NDAA hampers deeper cooperation on a range of issues. As a consequence, China has been looking for closer ties with other great naval powers.
In May 2014, China committed a substantially larger naval force for the Sino-Russian "Joint-Sea 2014" exercise -- an annual event that has occurred for the past three years. Due to rising tensions in the South China Sea, China and Russia have upgraded this year's joint naval drill by mixing their respective fleets into three joint battle groups. As my colleague Greg Austin points out, retired Chinese Rear Admiral Yang Yi stated that China should aspire to emulate the naval buildup of Russia, which according to Yi boasts the second largest navy in the world.
Given China's deeper ties with Russia, RIMPAC participation is meant to assuage the perpetual Chinese fear of encirclement by U.S. allies and to put a damper on nascent Sino-Russian military ties that still do not run very deep (e.g., neither China nor Russia are bound by treaty to automatically support one another militarily in case of conflict).
Conversely, China will see her participation in RIMPAC 2014 as an opportunity to undermine the apparent Anti-China coalition in East Asia and the Pacific spearheaded by the United States. However, this should not degrade the overall stabilizing impact of RIMPAC upon naval relations between both countries. Amidst the recent misgivings over the U.S. Justice Department's cyber espionage charges against five PLA officers, as well as the perennial standoff in the South China Sea, China's participation in the exercise signals that the military relations model to which Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Defense Minister Chang Wanquan agreed to in April 2014 is still in place, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
Franz-Stefan Gady is a Senior Fellow at the EastWest Institute. A version of this article has appeared on chinausfocus.com.