The U.S. Department of Defense has, after five years, decided to rescind an invitation for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) to participate in the U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises this year. The biennial exercises are the largest multinational naval exercise in the world and China participated for the first time in 2014, after the Obama administration extended an invitation in 2013. The PLAN’s invitation to participate in RIMPAC 2018 was issued by the Trump administration in May 2017.
Prior to the 2013 Obama administration invitation to the exercise, the Chinese were considered to be one of the greatest counterintelligence threats to its success. Many China analysts were not thrilled with the decision to invite the fox into the hen house. Others saw it as an opportunity to put one of The Art of War principles to work against its native sons —
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
The decision to disinvite the PLAN is being described explicitly as a U.S. response to China’s ongoing militarization of the South China Sea. In recent months, China has deployed electronic warfare equipment and possibly surface-to-air missiles to the Spratly Islands, where it maintains seven artificial islands, and it has, for the first time, landed an H-6K strategic bomber on Woody Island in the Paracel Islands.
“The United States is committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific. China’s continued militarization of disputed features in the South China Sea only serve to raise tensions and destabilize the region,” Department of Defense spokesman Marine Lt. Col. Christopher Logan remarked on Wednesday, announcing China’s disinvitation.
“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 (RIMPAC) Exercise. China’s behavior is inconsistent with the principles and purposes of the RIMPAC exercise,” Logan added.
Chinese Foreign Minister and Vice Premier Wang Yi, who was in Washington for unrelated meetings with U.S. officials, told reporters that the move was “very unconstructive” in China’s view. Wang met with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying, “We hope that the U.S. will change such a negative mindset.”
What effect will the disinvite have?
Depriving China of its access to RIMPAC doesn’t dangerously degrade U.S.-China military-to-military contacts, which have grown to be both broad and deep in the last decade. Twenty years ago, there were no senior level military-to-military contacts between the U.S. and China and even the most low-level encounters required express approval from the Under Secretary of Defense level.
Besides, China’s past record at RIMPAC isn’t exactly stellar. In 2014 — the PLAN’s first RIMPAC — China sent a Type 815 auxiliary general intelligence surveillance ship to spy on the exercise. Not exactly the way to establish trust with your new partners.
In July 2016 The Hague Tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines in its 2013 case against China over maritime entitlements in the South China Sea. At that point Beijing realized that costs to its reputation for its militarization and other activities in the region were negligible — The Hague decision seemed to do nothing to curtail their aggressive behavior.
Though a disinvitation from RIMPAC is a public rebuke by Washington, it almost certainly isn’t enough to spark any meaningful level of change in China’s behavior. China will continue to deploy military material to its seven artificial islands. Last week’s landing of a bomber on Woody Island will likely be followed up soon with military aircraft visiting airstrips of Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef, and Mischief Reef — the so-called ‘big three’ of China’s seven artificial islands.
The Pentagon described the RIMPAC decision as part of an “initial response,” suggesting that the administration may follow-up with a series of other moves. For instance, we may see the United States not only increase its already considerable presence in the South China Sea, but engage in bilateral exercises with regional partners and allies more frequently. Similarly, the administration may choose to increase its military interactions with Taiwan, pressing on a particularly raw nerve for the Chinese leadership. How this also affects China’s role in the recently cancelled North Korea summit is yet to be seen, but between this and intense trade negotiations, the U.S.-China quasi-Cold War could find itself heating up.
The timing of this disinvitation to RIMPAC is also notable in that it comes just one week before the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. Shangri-La is Asia’s premier security conference that brings together senior defense officials from around the region. U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will be in attendance and may use the podium at Shangri-La to offer a strong rebuke of Chinese activity in the South China Sea.
The RIMPAC disinvitation comes at a time of considerable uncertainty in U.S.-China ties and it remains clear that despite the recent and likely short-lasting thaw in a brewing trade war, relations between Beijing and Washington are poised for a significant period of turbulence. The Trump administration has openly identified China as a strategic competitor and adversary in its December 2017 National Security Strategy and its January 2018 National Defense Strategy documents.
The Obama administration was relatively soft on China, calling them a friend and not the strategic adversary that they have been for some time. China also dropped nearly completely off the Bush radar during the height of the Global War on Terrorism. This is just the beginning of seeing Trump and his team put a stronger stance against China into practice.
Featured image: A military honor guard prepares for U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert’s visit with Commander in Chief of the China’s navy Adm. Wu Shengli at a welcome ceremony at the latter’s navy headquarters outside of Beijing Tuesday, July 15, 2014. | AP Photo/Stephen Shaver, Pool