A Tactical Look at Asia-Pacific Naval Partnerships
As the largest U.S. Fleet, personnel and platforms assigned to the 7th Fleet are constantly engaged with regional partners and allies, working to find new opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation. This takes place bilaterally as the U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) arrived in Singapore in early May, where U.S. Navy subject matter experts met with their counterparts from the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) to discuss information-sharing in support of crisis response and enhanced maritime domain awareness. This partnership occurs multilaterally, with exercises such as Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT) that will see its 14th annual iteration later this year, and by strengthening regional institutions through active participation in the activities of the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS). Captain Ronald Oswald, Theater Security Cooperation Officer on the 7th Fleet Staff, indicated that while historically most U.S. exercises were conducted bilaterally, they are exploring multilateral training opportunities and expect iterations of previously bilateral exercises to open up to additional partners in 2016.
Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea
At the WPNS biennial symposium held in April 2014, hosted by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in Qingdao, China, the 21-member navies signed the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES). This non-binding, standardized protocol of safety procedures covers basic communications and maneuvering instructions that naval ships are to follow during unplanned encounters at sea. Blue Ridge followed up the WPNS symposium as they work to build the navy-to-navy relationship with the PLAN’s North Sea Fleet, calling on Qingdao in August 2014. Such meetings are consistent with the guidance from U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert, which seeks to build positive relations with the PLAN through planned events such as port visits and to take advantage of unplanned situations such as the passing of vessels at sea. “We have found over this past year that CUES has become fairly standard, when our ships meet at sea, at times where language is a barrier, these standard ways of integrating help ensure there is not a miscalculation, incident, or accident,” said Captain Oswald.
The Littoral Combat Ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) practiced CUES with the PLAN’s Jiangkai II frigate Hengshui (FFG 572) in late February while both vessels were operating routinely in the South China Sea. This took place shortly after Fort Worth departed from Singapore, the maintenance and logistics hub for LCSs rotationally deployed to the region, for a two-month underway period, which included the opportunity to take part in exercise Foal Eagle 2015 with the Republic of Korea Navy. While sailing back from Northeast Asia, Fort Worth pulled into Da Nang for the 6th annual iteration of Naval Engagement Activity (NEA) Vietnam with the Vietnam People's Navy in early April. The five-day training event was highlighted by the at-sea period where ships from both navies practiced conducting CUES exchanges.
Building on the efforts in Qingdao in 2014, the Philippine Navy hosted the WPNS 2015 workshop in April. U.S. Navy representatives indicated that a key topic of discussion was how member navies were implementing and practicing CUES in the first year since the signing of the agreement. While several navies expressed how they utilize CUES routinely, others conveyed that they were in a more nascent stage with respect to its use. As such, a proposal to create a CUES Working Group was discussed, to establish a venue for sharing information on its effective implementation. The WPNS workshop continues to offer a venue for the discussion of new ideas that could be raised to the Chiefs-of-Navy level, who will meet in Indonesia the next biennial symposium in 2016.
Fleet-Level Staff Talks
As the WPNS workshop was kicking off in Manila, Blue Ridge pulled into Zhanjiang, People’s Republic of China where Commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, Vice Admiral Robert Thomas, could meet with his counterpart from the PLAN’s South Sea Fleet. According to Captain Oswald, this port call continued a three-year cycle that would bring Blue Ridge to all three Chinese Fleet Headquarters, indicating that a visit to the PLAN's East Sea Fleet in Ningbo is being planned for 2016. The discussions between leaders from both navies included shared concerns such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, as well as search and rescue. One objective of these meetings was to further normalize procedures for when vessels encounter each other at sea.
Blue Ridge headed south to Singapore’s Changi Naval Base to meet their RSN counterparts, discussing responses to contingencies across the Indo-Asia-Pacific region and opportunities for increased multilateral engagements, including at the RSN’s International Fusion Centre (IFC). Captain Oswald indicated that 7th Fleet staff visited the IFC, “a capability that they have really integrated with other fusion centers and grown with more international participation. We are exploring new and more efficient ways of working together.” During SEACAT 2014 that took place at the RSN’s Multinational Operations and Exercises Center, one such fusion center shared information that was part of the exercise was the Philippines National Coast Watch System. In late April, U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Philip S. Goldberg inaugurated the National Coast Watch Center at Philippine Coast Guard Headquarters, part of a multi-year partnership funded by the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency that coordinates and fuses data from diverse sensors across the National Coast Watch System. These efforts reflect guidance from the updated Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower that directs the sea services to enhance partnerships “through shared maritime domain awareness.”
Late April also saw the release of new Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation, as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the U.S. The document states that both governments should “continue to pursue opportunities to work with partners in training and exercises to contribute to enhancing interoperability with the Alliance and the development of common tactics, techniques and procedures.” As a regional partner that has supported capacity-building in Southeast Asia for decades, Japan’s increased regional engagement has been largely well-received, and the 7th Fleet works closely with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) on a daily basis. “We see a lot of new interest among our many partners for JMSDF participation in their exercises and I think you will see that in 2016. A couple nations have invited the Japanese to participate and that is a positive sign. As we explore the discussions with everyone, I think that by 2017 we will see even more,” said Captain Oswald.
Overall, the demand for training and engagement with 7th Fleet assets continues to grow. This includes navigating the multifaceted China-U.S. bilateral relationship. However, Captain Oswald underscored that “our interest at 7th Fleet is to ensure we have professional encounters at sea with our Chinese counterparts, and that is going very well.”
The quality and quantity of military-to-military engagement with China continues to be debated, with increasing concerns being raised on the issue of land reclamation in the South China Sea. In a late April videoconference between Admiral Greenert and his Chinese counterpart, Admiral Wu Shengli, Greenert expressed his hope that the Chinese would explain the aims of their reclamation efforts to neighboring countries that have expressed growing concerns. The May 8 release of the annual Department of Defense report to Congress on Chinese military and security concerns identified the balance needed to manage disagreements on policy and divergent strategic interests. It states, “as the United States builds a stronger foundation for a military-to-military relationship with China, it must also continue to monitor China’s evolving military strategy, doctrine, and force development, and encourage China to be more transparent about its military modernization program.” These concerns will remain central to future partnership efforts in the Asia-Pacific region.