Earlier this week, media outlets reported that the U.S. Marine Corps was bringing together foreign commanders from amphibious forces – mostly those deployed in the Asia-Pacific – for a new conference to help integrate amphibious operations, with China excluded from the event.
The engagement in question is the inaugural U.S. Pacific Command Amphibious Leaders Symposium (PALS) held from May 17 to 21 in Hawaii involving around two dozen foreign nations. The Star Advertiser notes that according to the Marine Corps, the objective of the symposium is to get a handle on regional considerations with respect to amphibious operations – useful for a variety of purposes including humanitarian assistance, power projection and territorial defense. PALS reportedly includes group briefings, scenario-based exercises, and the observation of Culebra Koa 15, a joint seabasing exercise taking place in Hawaii. The idea is to help lay the groundwork for multilateral amphibious exercises between nations further down the line.
According to the Marine Corps, Australia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, Columbia, France, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Maldives, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, Tonga, United Kingdom and Vietnam will be sending representatives, while India, Brazil and East Timor were invited but unable to attend.
But as is often the case, much of the attention quickly turned to the one country that was excluded – China. This comes amid recent public disclosure that some in the U.S. government are mulling disinviting Beijing from the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises in 2016, an issue which I considered in an earlier piece. (See: “Should the US Invite China to RIMPAC 2016?”).
Yet it would be wrong to interpret any instance where China was not invited to a U.S.-sponsored military engagement as a sign of Washington’s hostility towards Beijing. Firstly, U.S.-China military-to-military relations, in addition to being characterized by deep mistrust and subject to periodic severance, are also significantly circumscribed by law. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, FY2000) specifies 12 operational areas where mil-to-mil contact is prohibited because it is deemed to create a national security risk due to “inappropriate exposure,” and exceptions are granted only to any search and rescue or humanitarian operation or exercise. Therefore, there are strict limits to what the United States can do in terms of including China in military engagements which it does not have with other countries. That may have affected the decision about whether to invite Beijing to PALS. According to The Star Advertiser, the Marine Corps said that China was not invited due to “U.S. policy restrictions.”
Second, and following from this, including China in U.S.-led exercises and engagements has usually been a gradual process that occurs with time and with some necessary adjustments. For example, China’s participation in RIMPAC, which began in 1971, commenced in 2014 and was restricted to certain portions of the exercise like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as well as search and rescue. Similarly, Beijing’s inclusion in the Cobra Gold exercises in 2014 was as an “observer plus” nation, and it was only invited to participate in the humanitarian and civil assistance (HCA) portion of the exercise which involved activities like building schools (See: “US-Thailand Relations and Cobra Gold 2015: What’s Really Going On?”). In contrast, PALS is in its inaugural year in 2015, and it may thus be too soon to integrate Beijing in its first year before even determining how the discussions and activities might evolve over time. That, of course, does not foreclose the possibility that China may be invited in some capacity further down the line.
Third, it is also not uncommon for the United States to consider whether or not to invite China based on Beijing’s current behavior during that time, rather than as part of a longstanding plot to contain the rising power. Many U.S. policymakers view mil-to-mil relations as not just another realm to cooperate with China, but as a source of leverage to regulate China’s conduct in a way that promotes peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific, particularly since Washington as a lot to offer in this dimension while Beijing often places value in being included in certain engagements.
Viewed from that prism, given China’s conduct in the South China Sea and the East China Sea over the past two years alone – from declaring an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea to harassing U.S. and claimant states’ aircraft and ships and carrying out rapid land reclamation activities in the Spratlys – it does not seem like an opportune time to reward Beijing’s behavior by including it in a new engagement. Indeed, as was noted earlier, there are voices calling for China’s exclusion in existing U.S.-led engagements and a generally tougher U.S. approach towards Beijing (See: “The Case for a Bolder US South China Sea Policy”). And as Josh Rogin reported recently over at Bloomberg View, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter decided in March to cancel a 2014 proposal to grant a Chinese request to have a U.S. aircraft carrier visit China and open up access for Chinese military officials because of concerns related to the “current regional environment and military balance considerations.”
Fourth and finally, even if there is an opportunity to integrate China into these engagements, there is no obligation for the United States to do so. Despite attempts to cooperate where possible, the United States and China are also competitors with their own interests, and it is neither reasonable to expect them both to include each other in all relevant interactions nor wise to infer that their involvement in such engagements will reduce the friction inherent in U.S.-China relations. Indeed, Reuters reported that a planning document prepared by a consultant to the U.S. military noted that China should “not be invited” to PALS because it is a “competitor” to the United States and some other countries in attendance.
More broadly, as Washington expands its exercises in the Asia-Pacific in the coming years, it may choose to integrate Beijing into some in certain cases in the name of ‘socialization’ or in the spirit of addressing common challenges together – like Cobra Gold or RIMPAC. But it might also want to have exclusive interactions that do not involve Beijing to advance its own interests, be they exercises like the Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT) exercise with several Southeast Asian navies or regular meetings with ASEAN defense ministers in the United States which was done for the first time in Hawaii in 2014. (See: “US Eyes Expanded Military Exercises with ASEAN Navies”). China, it should be noted, is also pursuing exclusive arrangements in the economic domain, though it is yet to develop sufficient military capabilities to do so in the security realm. Given the mix of cooperative and competitive aspects of U.S.-China relations, it would perhaps serve us well if we are prepared for a messy array of military engagements in the Asia-Pacific with varying degrees of inclusiveness – and aware of the limits of U.S.-China mil-to-mil relations – instead of having the same knee-jerk reaction whenever Beijing is not part of a new interaction.