The version of the U.S. National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2019 passed last week by the U.S. Senate includes suggestions for the conditions that China would have to meet to be once again invited to the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercises.
The multi-nation exercises — the largest naval exercises in the world — are led by the U.S. Navy and occur biennially. The United States chose to disinvite China to the 2018 iteration of RIMPAC over its behavior in the South China Sea, which has included the overt militarization of disputed features.
Per the text of the Senate-passed NDAA 2019, the U.S. Secretary of Defense is asked not to “enable or facilitate the participation” of the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) in RIMPAC until they can certify that China has:
(1) ceased all land reclamation activities in the South China Sea;
(2) removed all weapons from its land reclamation sites; and
(3) established a consistent four-year track record of taking actions toward stabilizing the region.
The ask is ultimately symbolic and highly unlikely to be taken seriously by China. It’s unclear too if the provisions included in the NDAA would be constitutional, given that the executive branch is afforded considerable leeway in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy — meaning that a future president could choose to invite the PLAN back to RIMPAC anyway.
The NDAA 2019 requests are preceded by non-binding advisory language on RIMPAC and other U.S.-led multilateral exercises and note that “no country that acts adversarially should be invited to multilateral exercises.
Among the 20 other navies confirmed to participate in this year’s RIMPAC exercises, none are adversarial to the United States. The PLAN would have been the only navy openly competitive with the United States to participate.
Even while it’s unlikely to have practical effect, the NDAA’s conditions are notable for their relatively limited scope. They only refer to the cessation of land reclamation activities conducted by China — activities that have largely already ceased. China has completed the land reclamation component of building its seven artificial islands in the Spratly group and has now moved on to constructing and improving structures on those artificial islands.
The conditionality also stops at the removal of military assets only from “land reclamation sites,” referring again to those seven artificial islands. There is no reference to withdrawal or for China to comply with the maritime entitlement understandings reached in the 2016 award of the Hague-based tribunal on these features. (None of them were found to be islands under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.)