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The largest navy exercise in the world is underway, increasingly focused on China

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The largest Navy exercise in the world is now underway. Rim of the Pacific, or RIMPAC, is increasingly focused on containing China as tensions rise in that region. From KPBS, Steve Walsh reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thirty-second standby to mark time zero eight one nine plus M tango.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: USS Portland sails up the California coast. But instead of its normal contingent of U.S. Marines, the ship carries a group of Australian and New Zealand divers and mine technicians. Lieutenant Commander Alex Rayner is chief of staff for the Australian contingent.

ALEX RAYNER: It's in every white paper that, you know, it's a different world that we live in now. So things like RIMPAC bring nations together, and this is absolutely why we need to keep doing this.

WALSH: RIMPAC sprawls between San Diego and Hawaii. It runs from July to early August. Twenty-six countries take part. The Australians are actually in charge of the Southern California portion. Rayner says it takes time to work together.

RAYNER: So from our perspective, the Americans obviously are much, much larger force. They have a lot more toys to play with. So for our guys to work alongside them, they're learning a lot.

WALSH: RIMPAC typically happens every two years. This time, the U.S. has to prove it's still interested in partnerships, says Tai Ming Cheung with UC San Diego.

TAI MING CHEUNG: There's been concerns over that, especially in recent years and when the Trump administration was in charge. It's like, could sort of, like, other countries rely on the U.S. militarily?

WALSH: Congress has put language in the defense bill to push the Navy to invite Taiwan to RIMPAC, which China sees as a breakaway province. Though as tensions rise, the Navy has resisted, says Tai Ming Cheung.

CHEUNG: The great power rivalry, the maritime, the naval rivalry between the U.S. and China has become increasingly acute. So RIMPAC in 2022 is in many ways sort of like one of these sort of front-line arenas of competition.

WALSH: China continues to build its military, including its navy. The U.S. still has the most high-tech navy, but if the U.S. wants to continue to play a large military role in the Pacific, it will have to rely on international partners to fill in the gaps. Again, Tai Ming Cheung.

CHEUNG: The problem for the U.S., though, is that the U.S. is a global navy. So it's that 280 warships has to be spread around the world. The Chinese is a regional navy, so most of its capabilities are focused on the Indo-Pacific.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER WHIRRING)

WALSH: Aboard the USS Portland, a series of helicopters practice taking off and landing while dive teams ready their equipment.

(CROSSTALK)

WALSH: The next day, Lieutenant Katherine Porter is in charge of the bridge as the Portland sails into San Diego. Porter only recently graduated from the Naval Academy. This is the first significant chance to interact with other countries since the pandemic took hold.

KATHERINE PORTER: It's really cool to see how other navies kind of run things compared to how we do here. On deployment with COVID, we didn't get to meet a lot of other foreign officers, so it's nice to finally get to interact with some.

WALSH: RIMPAC has been happening since 1971, though it was downsized dramatically by COVID in 2020. Once in San Diego, the Portland is scheduled for a media day. Captain Matthew C. Thomas concedes that one goal of RIMPAC is showing the world what the U.S. and its allies can do without specifically calling out China.

MATTHEW C THOMAS: I don't know if I would say the world is more or less dangerous. Certainly we do RIMPAC and exercises like this to demonstrate that resolve to those who don't agree with the values and ideals that we believe in.

WALSH: All of this culminates with a simulated amphibious landing in Hawaii involving nearly all of the nations invited this year. For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh in San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Walsh