Following a year of China’s flagrant and aggressive activities in contested waters, some in Washington are calling for President Obama to cancel China’s invitation to the largest maritime military exercise in the world.
Some leaders in Congress and the military want to exclude China, warning about its military buildup in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, which includes a rapid plan to build military-friendly infrastructure on new islands in waters where at least six Asian nations have competing claims. Satellite photos released last month show that in the past year China has built what Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, called a “Great Wall of Sand”: China has created new islands in the South China Sea and begun construction of helipads and anti-aircraft towers.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain told me that China’s actions over the last year call into question the Obama administration’s plan to invite China to the next Rim of the Pacific exercise, scheduled for summer 2016 near Honolulu.
“I would not have invited them this time because of their bad behavior,” said McCain. “In the last number of years they had filled in 60 acres of land around these islands; in the last year they have filled in 600 acres and they are putting in a runway. I don’t think there is any doubt about their territorial ambitions.”
China was officially invited to the RIMPAC exercises in 2014 for the first time, along with 21 other nations including several countries with whom Beijing has maritime territorial disputes, such as Vietnam and the Philippines. China brought a surprise to the last RIMPAC exercise: a surveillance spy ship that was neither expected nor welcomed.
McCain said China’s buildup in the South China Sea could lead to China establishing a new air defense identification zone in the South China Sea -- a de facto declaration of official Chinese airspace, similar to the zone China unilaterally announced in the East China Sea in 2013.
The U.S. opposed that move in 2013, but McCain said the administration needs to do more to deter China from creating a second air defense identification zone.
“That would a de facto assertion that it is Chinese airspace. I don’t think there’s any doubt the Chinese are acting in an aggressive manner,” said McCain. “Our Pacific Fleet commander has issued warning after warning, which have apparently been ignored.”
Inside the U.S. government, there is tension over whether the U.S. should increase cooperation with China to maintain ties, or put more distance between the two militaries. On the side of more robust engagement is the U.S. chief of naval operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, who has worked closely with China’s naval chief, Admiral Wu Shengli.
Last year, Greenert proposed to grant a Chinese request to have a U.S. aircraft carrier visit China and open up access for Chinese military officials. In February, McCain wrote to the secretary of Defense, then Chuck Hagel, in opposition to the idea. One month later, Hagel's replacement, Ash Carter, responded to tell McCain the carrier visit would not happen.
“The current regional environment and military balance considerations inform DOD’s engagement calculus, and as you suggest, a U.S. aircraft carrier visit would not support our stated objectives at this time,” Carter wrote.
Since taking up his post, Carter has taken a prominent role in security issues involving Asia. One Congressional aide briefed on the issue said that the Office of the Secretary of Defense told the Navy that it did not want China to be invited to RIMPAC 2016 given recent behavior but that the Navy is insisting on inviting China again. The Navy’s position is supported by the head of U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel Locklear, who is pushing more military to military engagement with China.
The White House is said to be open to the idea of disinviting China from RIMPAC and taking a tougher stance toward China’s aggression in the South China Sea, but so far hasn’t been assertive in weighing in on the debate, said one administration official who works on Asia-Pacific issues.
National Security Council Spokesman Patrick Ventrell declined to comment on RIMPAC specifically but said the administration is “working to deepen practical military cooperation on issues such as disaster response and counter-piracy, while at the same time developing and implementing confidence building measures that reduce the risk of accidents or miscalculation.”
Patrick Cronin, the head of the Asia-Pacific Security program at the Center for a New American Security, said the U.S. should be exacting a diplomatic and reputational price for China's bad behavior while increasing cooperation with other countries in the region.
“We are trying to avoid being outmaneuvered by a very active and assertive China,” said Cronin. “When they do things to violate the norms, we have to make sure they don’t benefit.”
But the cost to China should not necessarily include being excluded from RIMPAC, he said: The exercises can advance common goals involving things like maritime law and safety, search and rescue, and humanitarian relief.
“It all depends on what you think RIMPAC should be,” said Cronin. “For us to have China there is important, but that doesn’t mean that China is coming there with good intentions.”
Other experts argue that even if there is no national security risk to inviting China to RIMPAC, China simply does not deserve the privilege of participating.
“They don’t get any secrets at RIMPAC. The bigger issue is their attitude and behavior,” said Michael Auslin, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “You uphold certain standards and if China doesn’t meet those standards, they haven’t earned another invite back.”
The U.S.-China relationship is delicate, and the decision to punish China should be made with great care. But the Navy’s single-minded focus on engagement and the administration’s overall resistance to calling out China for bad behavior are shortsighted.
Rethinking the quantity and quality of the engagement with China actually might be better for the relationship over the long term. What’s clear is that so far, China is paying no price for its aggression. Until the Obama administration changes that, Beijing will continue to change facts on the ground -- and in the water -- in their own favor.
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