Should the US Invite China to RIMPAC 2016?
People's Republic of China frigate PLA(N) Yueyang (FF 575) during RIMPAC 2014.
Image Credit: U.S. Navy Photo

Should the US Invite China to RIMPAC 2016?


Last week, reports surfaced that some in the U.S. government are considering uninviting China from next year’s iteration of the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises, the world’s largest maritime military exercise, scheduled for summer 2016 near Honolulu. China participated for the first time in 2014.

The RIMPAC issue is just the latest round in a broader debate about whether and when to include China in such exercises, as well as the larger question of how to manage U.S.-China military-to-military relations. As is often the case in such debates, the positions of the two sides are much more complex than they are often presented. Both perspectives are worth examining because the arguments against China’s exclusion are weaker than they may initially seem, and the case for disinviting Beijing is actually far more complex than meets the eye. Furthermore, the RIMPAC card is only one of many that the United States can play when it comes to the question of how to impose costs on China’s bad behavior in the Asia-Pacific.

Those who oppose China’s exclusion from RIMPAC in 2016 would make several related arguments. First, excluding China from RIMPAC would undermine potential progress in U.S.-China military-to-military relations, which have seen some limited advances with the signing of a U.S.-China Memorandum of Understanding on the Rules of Behavior for the Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters last November. Second, disinviting Beijing would also run contrary to the purpose of such exercises, which is to advance common goals among the over 20 countries participating on issues where cooperation is required, such as maritime law and safety, search and rescue, and humanitarian relief,  regardless of competition in other spheres. To some, these exercises also help ‘socialize’ the Chinese military by bringing it into greater contact with other nations. Third and finally, some – including Dingding Chen in The Diplomatargue that the cost will be so minimal to China that the option is not even worth the effort.

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For some of those calling for China’s exclusion, this is much too neat. If progress on U.S.-China military-to-military relations is important to both countries, then both of them need to create the conditions necessary that allow the constituencies of the other side to advance that part of the relationship. If Beijing has not helped things with its behavior in the East China Sea and South China Sea in recent years – most visibly manifested today in its massive land reclamation activities – it cannot expect Washington to stand still in perpetuity. And China is well aware from previous downturns in U.S.-China mil-to-mil relations that improving ties in this realm is already difficult not only because of deep distrust, but legal limitations in the National Defense Authorization Act which restrict the extent to which Washington can engage with Beijing. Besides, from a U.S. perspective, the measure of success in the mil-to-mil relationship should not be the volume of interactions. The true indicator is whether the United States is achieving its key objective: getting China to behave in a way that promotes peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific, as Randy Schriver, President and CEO and Project 2049 Institute and former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told The Diplomat.

Furthermore, since China’s inclusion in RIMPAC last year was limited only to portions like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, as opposed to the full set of interactions, disinviting Beijing would not be as significant a blow to existing cooperation as some might suggest. It is also worth pointing out that China’s decision at RIMPAC 2014 to send a surveillance vessel to spy on the exercise was hardly a boost to the trust and confidence interactions of this ilk try to promote in any case. Lastly, the idea that China will not feel the impact of such a move is rather questionable considering the fact that Beijing’s invitation in 2014 grew out of complaints by Chinese officials that they were left out previously. While there may not be an actual economic cost that sanctions would impose, there would be a reputational cost of not conferring on Beijing the status of being invited to the world’s largest maritime military exercises, as well as the other attendant benefits of doing so, as others have pointed out before in these pages.

Yet if the arguments against excluding China from RIMPAC are weaker than they may initially seem, then it is also true that the case for disinviting Beijing is a far more complex one. Most significantly, even though proponents might agree that this ought to be considered as a proposal, they may disagree as to when and how it ought to be applied.

For some, the United States ought to consider disinviting China from RIMPAC as a future option to be exercised only if Beijing continues to behave badly and undermine peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific. RIMPAC, Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies told The Diplomat, “is something to hold over China’s head.” Future signs of bad behavior, Glaser said, would include establishing an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea, continued interference with freedom of navigation, and the deployment of military capabilities on islands that go beyond simple defense, including land-based missiles.

For others, China’s actions up to this point are already sufficient to warrant disinviting Beijing. Given China’s moves over just the past two years alone – including its declaration of an ADIZ in the East China Sea, its alarming land reclamation activities, and provocative encounters with ships and aircraft of Washington and its allies, is there any doubt left about where Beijing is headed, and any reason to hold off on ways to impose costs on this kind of behavior? “I think the time for waiting has already passed,” says Schriver.

A further point to emphasize is that the RIMPAC issue is only one way that the United States can impose costs on bad Chinese behavior with a more robust approach, and it ought to be considered as part of that broader question. As I have pointed out before, without a clear idea of this, there is a risk of becoming too bogged down in the merits of individual proposals without understanding their broader significance and relation to US interests. (See: “The Case for a Bolder US South China Sea Policy”). In addition, U.S. officials may eventually decide that there are simply more effective means to accomplish that same objective than disinviting China from RIMPAC 2016 which plays an important ‘socializing’ function. As I outlined in previous pieces, this may include sending ships near Chinese reclaimed features to reinforce Washington’s belief in freedom of navigation, clarifying America’s commitment in the context of the U.S.-Philippine alliance and the South China Sea, and aiming to boost patrols and exercises with claimant nations – all analogous to measures that the United States has taken in concert with Japan in the East China Sea (See: “How Would the US Challenge China in the South China Sea?”).

These moves would be bolder demonstrations of a more robust U.S. policy and would actually change the balance of power in the South China Sea in a way that a RIMPAC disinvite would not. But they also carry greater risk of raising tensions with China and may be less attractive for some U.S. government officials for exactly that reason.

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