Territorial tensions in the South China Sea, as well as strategic competition between the United States and China in the western Pacific, are the tableau against which the U.S. Navy has been conducting its ongoing humanitarian mission, Pacific Partnership 2023.
Capt. Claudine Caluori, the Navy program’s mission commander, told media on Nov. 3 that nearly 1,500 personnel are involved, including some from Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and the UK.
Pacific Partnership is now in its 18th iteration, the mission being born after the devastating 2004 tsunami that struck South and Southeast Asia. The mission centers around the dock landing ship USS Pearl Harbor (LSD-52) and Independence-class USS Jackson (LCS-6). Capt. Caluori is otherwise the Commander of Destroyer Squadron 31, based out of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It commenced in Vietnam in August, and subsequently stopped in the Philippines, Malaysia, Samoa, Palau, Papua New Guinea and Fiji, before it ends later this year.
Pacific Partnership is the largest annual multinational humanitarian assistance and disaster relief preparedness mission in the Indo-Pacific. Caluori said: “Each year our mission team works with host and partner nations to enhance regional interoperability and disaster response capabilities. We increase security and stability and we foster new and enduring friendships in the Indo-Pacific. The relationships between the countries we have visited and our partners are deep and enduring.”
China’s attempts to gain a strategic foothold in Pacific Island nations makes this mission even more important. Beijing has already gained an influential position in Solomon Islands, and the Chinese military now conducts regular medical missions in the Pacific. For example, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) hospital ship Peace Ark departed Zhoushan on Jul. 3 to commence Harmonious Mission 2023.
The vessel duly stopped in Kiribati, Tonga, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Timor Leste. It was the ninth Harmonious Mission for the 14,000-ton Peace Ark, and included visits to Kiribati and Solomon Islands for the first time. With 126 Chinese military and civilian medical personnel aboard, it stayed in each port for a week to offer free medical services.
USNI News asked Caluori whether there has been any cooperation or competition between the U.S. Navy and PLAN during Pacific Partnership 2023, or any encounters between the two. She responded that “the US Navy and our allies and partners, we value our growing cooperation with host nations and we look forward to enhancing the lines of communication and understanding that promotes greater cooperation and partnerships that benefit all nations.”
The mission commander continued, “All Pacific Partnership 2023 operations are driven by host nation requests and approval … The host nations invite the U.S. Navy and its mission partners to visit and conduct tailored humanitarian civic action preparedness activities in areas such as engineering, disaster response, public health and outreach events. And again, all additional criteria are taken into consideration, such as the host nation’s objections and desires.”
As to any encounters with the PLAN, she was “not aware of any contacts at this time.” Caluori said Pacific Partnership is conducted yearly, so it is not held in response to any nation or current events.
USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) had an inaugural visit to Solomon Islands last year, although Honiara denied entry to USCGC Oliver Henry (WPC-1140) shortly before that. Mercy is due to arrive there again around Nov. 18, staying until Dec. 3, though this falls under the Pacific Partnership 24-1 umbrella.
There also is concern about Chinese influence in the Marianas, where U.S. sailors and Marines of Task Force Koa Moana 23 worked on construction projects. Pacific Partnership will return to the Federated States of Micronesia next year, with Mercy scheduled to visit in January.
Asked about cooperation with the Philippine Navy in the South China Sea, where Chinese law enforcement vessels are tussling with the Philippines over the Second Thomas Shoal, Caluori said, “I just want to reiterate that our government has reaffirmed that a strong U.S.-Philippine alliance is vital to a free and open Indo-Pacific region, and that we’ll continue to partner closely with the Philippines.”
She said Chinese actions against the Philippines “are destabilizing and they threaten the region’s security and prosperity. And this is why our primary focus is on strengthening deterrence in collaboration with our growing network of allies and partners.”
Caluori went on to say the the U.S. remains “committed to upholding a free and open Indo-Pacific region where all nations, large and small, are secure in their sovereignty, can pursue economic opportunity and resolve disputes without coercion, and of course have the freedom to navigate and fly consistent with international laws and norms.”
Over the preceding three months, Pacific Partnership 2023 conducted 489 events, 316 of which were medical events. There have been 34 humanitarian assistance and disaster relief symposiums and tabletop exercises, and engineers conducted at least 38 renovation or new construction projects.