Under Obama, US Twice Invited China to Take Part in Major Pacific Exercises; Now Pentagon Says No

By Patrick Goodenough | May 24, 2018 | 4:32 AM EDT

A Chinese PLA Navy frigate, Yueyang, takes part in the U.S.-led multinational RIMPAC exercise in 2014. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

(CNSNews.com) – An administration decision to “disinvite” China from taking part in an international military exercise in the Pacific this summer comes two years after the Obama administration allowed it to participate, despite concerns about its aggressive behavior in the South China Sea.

Two years before that, the Obama administration invited China to take part in the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise for the first time since its 1971 inception – only to see Beijing also send a spy ship, uninvited, to the edge of the exercise to monitor it.

This year brings a different approach.

“As an initial response to China’s continued militarization of the South China Sea we have disinvited the PLA Navy from the 2018 Rim of the Pacific,” U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Christopher Logan said in a statement Wednesday.

He said the U.S. has “strong evidence” that China has deployed anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles as well as electronic jamming systems in a disputed region of the South China Sea where it has built artificial islands in support of its territorial claims.

Logan also cited China’s recent landing, for the first time, of nuclear-capable, long-range bombers on an island claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan, saying the move had “raised tensions.”

“We believe these recent deployments and the continued militarization of these features is a violation of the promise that [Chinese] President Xi [Jinping] made to the United States and the world not to militarize the Spratly Islands,” he added.

Xi gave that commitment alongside President Obama in the White House Rose Garden in September 2015, saying that the construction activities in the area in question “do not target or impact any country, and China does not intend to pursue militarization.”

Speaking to reporters alongside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington on Wednesday, Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi called the RIMPAC decision “unconstructive” and voiced the hope that the U.S. would change its “negative mindset.”

Wang disputed charges that China was militarizing the region, claiming that was “is only building civilian and some necessary defense facilities on our own islands.”

He compared those steps to the U.S. military presence in Hawaii and Guam.

China claims sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea – one of the world’s most important shipping trade corridors – including resource-rich areas that fall within the exclusive economic zones of surrounding nations. Other countries with claims in the area include Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.

Responding to the Pentagon decision, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wisc.), a Marine Corps veteran, tweeted that “China views its RIMPAC participation as a sign of its international legitimacy. This move sends a strong signal to PRC leadership that its reckless behavior in the South China Sea carries with it real consequences.”

‘Everybody ought to work together here’

RIMPAC began in 1971 with the participation of just four U.S. allies – Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand – before growing to include naval forces from more than 20 nations.

In 2014 the Obama administration invited China to take part for the first time, and the PLA Navy sent a destroyer, a frigate, a supply vessel and a hospital ship. Controversially, it also deployed a surveillance vessel in the area.

The following year, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), chairman and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote to then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter, urging him to revoke the invitation to China to participate in RIMPAC 2016.

“Given China’s behavior in the past year alone, including its disregard for the interests of our allies, international law, and established norms, we do not believe Beijing should have been invited to this prestigious U.S.-led military exercise in 2016,” they wrote.

McCain and Reed cited the spy ship episode and Beijing’s attempts to alter the status quo in the South China Sea.

“Despite our best efforts to build trust and cooperation, the pace and scope of China’s maritime sovereignty activities have only increased.”

Carter chose not to disinvite China however.

Taking questions from sailors onboard a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier in April 2016, he explained that “our approach to security in the region … has always been to try to include everyone.”

Even as the U.S. was standing strong with its allies in the region, Carter said, “we’re still taking the approach of – that everybody ought to work together here, so if the Chinese want to participate, I think it’s the right place for us to be.”

China sent five ships to the 2016 exercises.

In written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in April, Admiral Philip Davidson, the expected nominee to head up U.S. Pacific Command, said that, short of going to war with the U.S., China is now able to control the South China Sea.

Once deployment at its bases in the area is complete, he said, “[t]he PLA will be able to use these bases to challenge U.S. presence in the region, and any forces deployed to the islands would easily overwhelm the military forces of any other South China Sea claimants.”

“In short, China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States,” Davidson assessed.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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