RIMPAC is about defence, not just diplomacy

The US Navy is hosting its Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) from 17–31 August 2020. Held biennially around the Hawaiian Islands, RIMPAC is the world’s largest international maritime exercise.

To mitigate the risks of COVID-19, this 27th iteration of RIMPAC is shortened and features an ‘at-sea-only’ construct. 10 of the 25 invited states are taking part despite the pandemic.

At first glance, RIMPAC seems to exemplify defence diplomacy, typically understood as the cooperative use of the military in peacetime.

Defence diplomacy refers to a list of activities such as peacekeeping and bilateral or multilateral military exercises and exchanges. Its goal is to prevent conflict by building trust and confidence between states. In this way, defence diplomacy is almost an oxymoron, reversing the traditional coercive role of the military and instead emphasising its diplomatic function.

Does it actually work? The ideal outcome of defence diplomacy would be for generals to de-escalate by picking up the phone to their counterparts, whom they met at a military exercise like RIMPAC. Such a scenario seems unlikely given military leaders rarely act outside orders from political leadership.

Policymakers, military leaders and observers often take for granted that defence diplomacy and trust are inherently conjoined. How this is supposed to work is unclear. The prevailing assumption is that it simply does.

This view ignores that trust may be of different kinds. Soldiers working together cooperatively in defence diplomacy might strengthen strategic trust, which is about predictability or credibility. As soldiers do more defence diplomacy, these activities become repetitive, building strategic trust. For instance, the list of states invited for each RIMPAC changes little between its iterations.

Another type of trust is more important in preventing conflict. Moralistic trust refers to belief in the good intentions of another — how the word ‘trustworthy’ is usually understood. Greater moralistic trust means states gain confidence that other states have their interests in mind.

Defence diplomacy activities contain realpolitik motivations that are seldom publicly recognised. These activities are as competitive as they are cooperative, and such competition may harm moralistic trust.

Militaries engaged in defence diplomacy activities also compete in terms of demonstrating capabilities, swagger and secrecy, all of which have been demonstrated during RIMPAC.

Demonstrating military capabilities adds to deterrence, targeting ‘partners’ and non-participants alike. China, participating in RIMPAC for the first time in 2014, saw firsthand the full might of the US Pacific Fleet. Analysts tout a RIMPAC in the South China Sea as Beijing’s ‘worst nightmare’.

States may exhibit their military platforms and assets to bolster their international status and prestige. In 2018, the United States ‘disinvited’ China from RIMPAC, citing China’s behaviour in the South China Sea. This move to delegitimise China contrasts with the typical aim of cooperative defence diplomacy in preventing conflicts.

Secrecy refers to hiding military capabilities to maintain the advantage of surprise when it comes to the actual use of force. States compete in hiding their military secrets, while at the same time trying to collect intelligence on others’. Against the spirit of cooperation, during RIMPAC 2016 China barred Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force sailors from tours on its ships and only allowed them to attend an onboard reception on a Chinese warship after US pressure.

The existence of competitive defence diplomacy casts doubt on whether defence diplomacy automatically leads to strategic trust. Such competition is further likely to harm moralistic trust between states as they try to top one another rather than find common ground.

This is not to say that defence diplomacy activities are simply pretexts to collect military intelligence, heighten prestige or deter potential adversaries. Rather, militaries do these even as they cooperate, which represents a notable paradox in defence diplomacy.

As Sino-US tensions grow, the United States again opting not to invite China for RIMPAC 2020 reaffirms that defence diplomacy is ultimately a tool for defence rather than diplomacy.

Fuente: East Asia Forum