S.Korea sends largest-ever contingent to RIMPAC, a ‘dangerous’ move to deviate from neutral stance for US Indo-Pacific strategy
Published: Jul 02, 2022 01:25 AM
RIMPAC 2022 exercise  kicked off on June 30,2022, which the US Pacific Fleet described as

RIMPAC 2022 exercise kicked off on June 30,2022, which the US Pacific Fleet described as "the world's largest international maritime exercis." Photo: Website of US Indo-Pacific Command 

South Korea has reportedly sent a largest-ever contingent to the ongoing US-led Rim of the Pacific 2022 (RIMPAC 2022) exercise as its president wrapped up his first appearance in NATO. Chinese experts have warned that these moves send a dangerous signal that the Yoon Suk-yeol administration is deviating from a neutral line amid China-US competition and losing diplomatic autonomy to serve the US' Asia-Pacific strategy, which also faced concerns in South Korea over relations and cooperation with China. 

RIMPAC 2022 exercise  kicked off on Thursday, which the US Pacific Fleet described as "the world's largest international maritime exercise." 

According to a statement, 26 nations, 38 surface ships, four submarines, nine national land forces, more than 30 unmanned systems, approximately 170 aircraft and more than 25,000 personnel will train and operate in and around Hawaii and Southern California from June 29 to August 4.  

Launched in 1971, the RIMPAC exercise is designed to enhance cooperation among participating countries in securing sea lines of communication and countering potential security challenges at sea.

However, with the US' promotion of its ambitious Indo-Pacific strategy, the exercises have turned into a platform for the US and its allies to test their combat techniques and capacities to prepare for potential military conflicts in the sea, especially conflicts with China in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Straits. 

Except for Japan and Australia, South Korea this year also actively participated in the exercise as it sent the largest contingent to the RIMPAC since the country first joined the exercise in 1990, the Yonhap News Agency reported.

The South Korean fleet joining this year's RIMPAC includes the 14,500-ton Marado amphibious landing ship, the 7,600-ton Sejong the Great destroyer, the 4,400-ton Munmu the Great destroyer, the 1,800-ton Shin Dol-seok submarine, a P-3 maritime surveillance aircraft, two Lynx helicopters and nine amphibious assault vehicles, according to Yonhap. 

The move is partly the result of the so-called consensus reached by South Korea and the US on the Korean Peninsula to deter North Korea during US President Biden's visit to South Korea, Lü Chao, an expert on the Korean Peninsula issue at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times on Friday.

Leaders of Japan and South Korea had also expressed interest to underpin a security alliance with the US' Western allies during their first participation in the NATO Summit in Madrid on Wednesday.

Lü said that the large-scale contingent is a practical move of South Korea to tell the US that it is willing to get closer and enhance cooperation with Japan in creating a military alliance. 

This is a dangerous signal as it indicates that, although trying to explain that its cooperation with the US does not target China, South Korea is deviating from the neutral stance between China and the US and sacrificing its diplomatic autonomy to serve the US' Indo-Pacific strategy to contain China, Lü warned.
These moves will not only harm economic and security interests of South Korea in the long run, but will exacerbate regional confrontation and division, experts warned.   

Some awkward moments for Yoon showed that his first appearance at NATO was not so smooth as he expected.

In one photo of the four leaders who attended the NATO summit for the first time that was released on the NATO website on Wednesday, Yoon's eyes were closed while the other leaders of Japan, Australia and New Zealand smiled.

In a video clip circulating on Thursday, Yoon, smiling and nodding his head, was given a "no look handshake" by Biden, which was described by some South Korean netizens as "pathetic." Korea Herald reporter Yim Hyun-su posted the video on Twitter with the words: "When someone you think is your bestie doesn't acknowledge you at a party."

Concerns also rose within South Korea especially after South Korea's senior presidential secretary for economic affairs told media in Madrid the export boom era through China that South Korea has enjoyed over the past 20 years is coming to an end, adding South Korea needs to diversify its markets to Europe, media reported on Wednesday.

"It is largely the South Korean government that lacks strategic thinking in their approach to the Indo-Pacific Strategy and alliance with the US," Jaewoo Choo, a professor of Chinese foreign policy at the Department of Chinese Studies, Kyung Hee University, told the Global Times on Friday. 

"The Yoon government wants to be an active player, but the public is very concerned of China's market and our national interest in China. Most of all, they want our relationship with China mended but not in this fashion. That's why there are some protests," Choo said. 

As for the RIMPAC exercise, despite South Korea's sincerity to show an attitude to the US through it, military experts pointed out that they are just a series of shows for the US to flex muscle and try to sell more weapons.

And even if it looks like the US is attracting more partners to join the exercises this year, the participants have different considerations, Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert and TV commentator told the Global Times.

Among these partners, only Japan and Australia probably would actually come or is able to help the US if a military conflict erupts between the US and China. Many other countries, especially some small countries, are just "kidnapped" by the US to join and would only take part in a few of the projects, Song pointed. 

Commissioned in 2021, the South Korea's Marado amphibious landing ship is expected to serve as a de facto prototype and contribute to the country acquiring knowledge and capabilities about light aircraft carrier operation for their model of light aircraft carrier. However, Chinese military experts noted that it is far from a model for light aircraft carrier at current stage but a landing platform for helicopters.  

Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter destroyer JS Izumo (DDH-183) arrived at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam to participate in the RIMPAC 2022 exercise. It is the first time an Izumo class DDH has participated in RIMPAC. Furthermore, the Izumo has completed the first phase of its modification to operate the F-35B in 2021, media reported. 

It is also the first time that a Japanese warship has arrived in Pear Harbor since the Japanese attack in 1941 that crippled or destroyed nearly 20 American ships and more than 300 airplanes.

The US seems to have forgotten the bitter history or how ambitious Japan was by trying to support it as a military ally and help it enhance military capacity, experts said. 

Led by the Type 055 large destroyer Lhasa, a Chinese People's Liberation Army  Navy flotilla reportedly finished a full circle around Japan on Thursday, which experts said serves as a warning to Japan and the US as they had been making repeated provocations on China over the Taiwan question.