China, RIMPAC and Containment

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China, RIMPAC and Containment

It appears China has accepted an invitation to participate in RIMPAC. Will the PLAN’s role help enhance ties?

The U.S. military’s Stars and Stripes is out today with a report that China has officially accepted an invitation to participate in RIMPAC in 2014.

The biannual exercise is one of the United States’ largest military exercises in the Pacific region with twenty-two nations participating in 2012, up from fourteen in 2010. RIMPAC typically includes sea drills, war games and humanitarian assistance exercises, according to S&S.

The announcement is hardly unexpected. The U.S. has been signaling its interest in having China join the multinational exercise since Beijing’s exclusion at last year’s event generated media attention. An official invitation went out to the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in January, which PLAN accepted last month according to the S&S report.

On the one hand including China in RIMPAC makes perfect sense. For starters, it fits into Washington’s goal of increasing military-to-military contacts with the PLA in order to increase the transparency of China’s military modernization and reduce tensions between the U.S. military and the PLA. Furthermore, as RIMPAC has grown larger over the years it has become increasingly difficult to defend the exercise as aimed at anything but China.

Still it’s not clear exactly how beneficial China’s participation will be. To begin with, it’s far from clear how much impact stronger mil-to-mil ties actually have on U.S.-China relations. Tensions have persisted during times of greater mil-to-mil cooperation and at times it seems these mil-to-mil ties become an end in themselves. Furthermore, Beijing’s presence could very well reduce the robust nature of RIMPAC, especially given existing U.S. laws that limit the types of military cooperation the military can participate in with China.

But in reality inviting China to RIMPAC must be seen as part of the larger issue of America’s obsession with not being seen as trying to contain China. The issues with this obsession are twofold.

First, the effort is almost certainly futile. Although acting in its own interests, the U.S. has done more to facilitate China’s rise than any other country in the world except China itself. Given that Chinese leaders are still nearly unanimous in their belief that the U.S. is trying to contain Beijing, it’s not clear how Washington could ever convince them otherwise.

Secondly, the U.S. is of course likely trying to contain China now and almost certainly will be in the future. Indeed, what is striking about Washington’s repeated assurances about not containing China is that the issue is always discussed within a strategic vacuum. That is to say the pledge is always made without any reference to what China’s intentions and aims may be.

The absurdity of this should be hard to discern. For example, if Beijing’s goals included invading and occupying California then surely Washington should be trying to contain its rise. This example, while obviously an inflated exaggeration, underscores the broader dilemma plaguing U.S. policy. Washington has given little indication that it is willing to acquiesce to greater Chinese influence in any meaningful arena unless of course Beijing uses that greater influence only in ways that compliment U.S. interests. But the whole point is that giving greater influence to China is by definition going to reduce Washington’s ability to control outcomes on these issues.

To determine whether the U.S. should contain China or not, Washington must first assess what Chinese intentions are and whether or not the U.S. can live with accepting these. But of course ascertaining China’s current and future intentions is nearly impossible, which is why nations so often find themselves falling back on containment. Chinese leaders know this and an invitation to RIMPAC will not convince them otherwise.