RIMPAC: Building and Reinforcing Regional Cooperation
This July marks the twenty-third biannual Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercises hosted by the U.S. Pacific Command near Hawaii. This exercise will be the largest naval exercise comprising 22 nations with over 40 ships and 25,000 sailors and soldiers. RIMPAC 2012 is a strong reminder of the United States’ vital role in facilitating cooperation in a region of vital strategic importance.
While the United States has always had a strong presence in East Asia with its bases in Korea and Japan, this year marks a renewed priority on Southeast Asia. During the height of the Vietnam War, the United States operated massive bases in Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines. By the 1990s the United States had largely cleared out of the region due to pressure from the host governments and budget cuts. Over a decade later, the United States finds a region that has changed two-fold.
At the turn of the 21st century, Southeast Asia was still reeling from the Asian Financial crisis. In 1998, the growth rate in East Asia declined to 2.6%. Southeast Asia recorded negative growth averaging negative 6.9%. Today, the region contains the world’s fastest growing economies. Asian economies averaged 8.3% growth in 2010 according to the International Monetary Fund.
Second, China has proceeded with rapid military modernization over the past decade. In the last year, China’s official defense spending increased 11.2% to $106 billion. China has used this increased funding to completely overhaul its arsenal from a new stealth fighter to its first aircraft carrier. Meanwhile, China has taken assertive positions in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. Maritime disputes with its neighbors are now constant occurrences.
Flush with cash and anxious about China’s military budget, ASEAN nations have started defense spending sprees to replace their early Cold War and even WWII era arsenals. IHS Jane’s estimated that South East Asian countries increased their defense spending by 13.5% in 2011. Singapore is now the fifth-largest arms importer in the world. Vietnam and Indonesia are rapidly modernizing their navies with new frigates and Russian submarines. The end result will be many well-armed nations in one of the most disputed maritime regions in the world.
It is these new realities that highlight the importance of the RIMPAC exercises. Gone are the days when a United States carrier strike group could quickly diffuse any potential conflict. If the United States wants to leverage its impact in the region, it will need to rely on partners. Fortunately, the United States has a strong web of relationships extending from Japan and Korea to Australia. Many ASEAN members are eager to invite the United States back to their countries. The Philippines are open to the United States returning to Subic Bay and Clark Air Base. Discussions are in the works about opening access to Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay and Thailand’s U-Tapao.
Exercises like RIMPAC allow the United States to develop important military-to-military ties in the region. Enhanced regional cooperation has already made important impacts. The Strait of Malacca is a crucial artery of global trade accounting for about 40% of total trade. Piracy historically was a problem in the Strait of Malacca; however, coordinated naval patrols, fostered by exercises like RIMPAC, have virtually eliminated the threat of piracy. Military-to-military ties are crucial in furthering American diplomacy and enhancing regional security whether it is protecting maritime rights or providing disaster relief.
Such ties will only become more important. The region is becoming increasingly militarized raising the likelihood of conflict. Enhanced cooperation will be absolutely necessary to ensure that tensions do not spiral out of control. The United States’ “Asia pivot” does exactly that by building and reinforcing existing relationships. The United States no longer has to go it alone in Southeast Asia.
Dan Stepanicich is a Truman Legislative Intern.