Why it is important for NZ to participate in Rimpac exercises

In a world that tends toward disorder, the future is always uncertain. Rimpac exercises are an important staple of New Zealand/Australia/US military relations and likely will be long into the future.

Hawaii is perhaps best known for its many surfers, the blonde-haired, non-threatening and docile creatures comfortably living on the waves.

But this July and August larger and more deadly craft are skimming the waves around the holiday islands. The 23rd military exercise of the Rim of the Pacific (Rimpac) series is under way and the Royal New Zealand Navy is participating.

These multinational maritime manoeuvres are the world’s largest, with 21 countries invited to participate this year sailing everything from conventionally powered warships to the controversial-only-in-New-Zealand nuclear-powered variants.

Intriguingly, the United States plans for many of its ships to be powered by a 50/50 mixture of biofuel. The alternate energy was bought at the hefty price of $US12 million for 1.6 million litres, making it the largest single biofuel purchase in history.

The exercises are particularly important for the US as Washington cements its strategic shift toward the Pacific region. Interoperability and power projection are at the top of the agenda, with Russia making its debut entrance to the series.

Exercises will include mine clearance, disaster response, antisubmarine warfare and, of course, humanitarian relief.

Australia and New Zealand have been invited to previous Rimpac gatherings and it is just as important today as it has been in the past for both South Pacific nations to participate.

This is because both rely on maritime trade to maintain their standards of living. Neither country could function if those supply lines to the world markets were broken.

More than 75% of Australian exports and imports (by value) travel by sea. And New Zealand’s export market, especially its livestock and dairy industry, depends on the safe travel of shipping to deliver their goods to faraway cities.

The Australasian nations cannot guarantee the safety of these logistics with their own navies. The Royal New Zealand navy is small and equipped primarily to protect its territorial waters and cannot maintain long-term expeditionary missions.

While the Royal Australian navy is stronger in size and capability, and looking to increase its purchases of modern warships, it is nevertheless unable to project any real maritime power.

Throughout their history both nations have relied on a stronger naval power to guarantee their critical supply routes. In the 19th and early 20th centuries that patron country was Britain. British ships controlled the world’s strategic waterways and protected international shipping.

However, since World War II, when Britain essentially ceded control of the North Atlantic to the US in return for American assistance in fighting Axis powers, the pre-eminent global maritime power has been the United States Navy.

The US Navy patrols the world’s oceans every day of every year. Hundreds of millions of dollars are funnelled into the operation of extremely modern warships that can sail to any part of the globe within days.

It operates more aircraft carriers than all other countries combined and plans to build even more in the next few decades. In fact, a US carrier group is a centrepiece to the Rimpac exercises.

There are few things more intimidating than the sight of a US aircraft carrier sailing just offshore for a belligerent government. The presence of American naval patrols around the world, in flashpoints such as the South China Sea or the Korean peninsula, and in the world’s most critical shipping lanes, is not to be understated.

Without the guarantee of international passage that US warships provide the global market could probably not exist.

Perhaps the most enduring international relations success of the past 50 years is also the most difficult to spot. US warships that maintain the balance of power between nations and hold open transit lanes are an integral part of our world.

Without the United States Navy Japan, for one, would bolster its territorial navy, which is already one of the strongest in the world, to offset the growing strength of China’s increasingly capable navy.

If US ships did not patrol the Arabian Peninsula many of those nations would take their security into their own hands to counter the threat posed by a rising Iran.

The territorial disputes in the South China Sea is already heating up – removing the presence of American navy patrols would only accelerate fractures in the region.

Its global maritime pre-eminence prevents conflicts between states just as surely as it can conclude them. US warships now in Hawaii are part of a system that is just as humanitarian as the largest aid package.

The 21 nations attending Rimpac display the global dependence on American naval power and how incredibly important each country considers training with the US military.

Australia and New Zealand are participating in the exercises to ensure they can operate alongside the US Navy. It is extremely important for isolated nations such as these to maintain good relations with the current global maritime power.

In a world that tends toward disorder, the future is always uncertain. Rimpac exercises are an important staple of New Zealand/Australia/US military relations and likely will be long into the future.

Nathan Smith has studied international relations and conflict at Massey University. He blogs at INTEL and Analysis

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