China’s Worst Nightmare: RIMPAC 2020 in the South China Sea?


Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2018, the world’s largest international maritime exercise concluded on 2 August, following over a month of rigorous training events conducted off Hawaii and California. This year’s RIMPAC marked the 26th in the series that began in 1971. Twenty-five nations, forty-six surface ships, five submarines, and more than two hundred aircraft and twenty-five thousand personnel—including seventeen Marine and Army contingents participated in the biennial exercise. Participating forces exercised a wide range of maritime capabilities, ranging from disaster relief and maritime security operations to sea control and advanced war fighting.

Now let’s consider RIMPAC 2020. Building on the successes of RIMPAC 2018 and leveraging the changing political conditions in the Indo-Pacific highlighted during the 2017 and 2018 Shangri-La Dialogues, and in line with the new muscular National Security and Defense Strategies, serious consideration should be given to conducting RIMPAC 2020 in the South China Sea (SCS).

If so, the bold trifecta in strategic effects—pushing back against China’s unilateral expansionism in the strategic waterway, reinforcing the legal standing of the 2016 International Arbitral Tribunal ruling that invalidated Beijing’s Nine-Dash Line claims, and underscoring the universal importance of rule of law and compliance with global norms—will demonstrate that the United States and like-minded nations are willing to stand up for their national interests and shared values.

Tactically Viable

The expansive and deep-watered SCS, stretching from the Malacca Straits to the Taiwan Strait, offers a diverse tactical environment to accommodate a large fleet of participating ships, submarines and aircraft. And it allows for a realistic and complex maritime training regimen that includes disaster relief; amphibious operations; gunnery, missile, anti-submarine and air defense exercises; counter-piracy operations; mine clearing; and diving and salvage operations.

Importantly, for high-end warfighting like amphibious operations, live-fire training, and ship-sinking exercises (SINKEX), there is plenty of open water and airspace in the SCS; coastlines and islands along Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia; and training areas and weapon ranges in Australia and the Philippines .