China-US relations

Military trust under more strain after US tells China it can’t take part in Pacific naval drill

Analysts warn there may be more antagonism to come over South China Sea

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 May, 2018, 9:48pm
UPDATED : Friday, 25 May, 2018, 4:20pm

The Pentagon’s withdrawal of an invitation for China to take part in a multinational naval drill in the Pacific this summer has put military trust between the two sides under greater strain, analysts say.

The US military said on Thursday it had disinvited China from the Rim of the Pacific exercises, the world’s biggest international naval drill, citing “China’s continued militarisation of the South China Sea”.

It came just days after China’s air force landed an advanced H-6K strategic bomber on Woody Island in the Paracel group and deployed radar position, anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles on three newly built features on Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef and Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands.

Subi Reef, located some 1,200km (750 miles) from China’s coast, now has nearly 400 individual buildings – far more than the other Chinese islands according to private sector data, Reuters reported on Thursday. It could be the future location of hundreds of Chinese marines and a possible administrative hub as Beijing tries to cement its claim to the disputed waterway with a civilian presence, security analysts and diplomatic sources said.

The Pentagon said in a statement that Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea “raise tensions and destabilise the region” so it had cancelled the invitation.

China’s defence ministry responded that “invited or not, China will never change its determination ... to firmly defend its national sovereignty and security interests” in the South China Sea.

Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang reiterated Beijing’s claims over the South China Sea islands, saying its construction and deployment of military facilities there was “legitimate” and “necessary”, and had “absolutely nothing to do with militarisation”.

China protests being kicked out of US military exercise

China took part in the US-led Rim of the Pacific drill – held off Hawaii every other year in June and July – for the first time in 2014 and again in 2016. This year’s invitation was sent to Beijing in January and a Chinese delegation then went to the US to discuss logistics.

The US withdrawal of an invitation to such a symbolic event comes at a difficult time in relations between the two sides and is potentially just the first setback in military exchanges between them, said Zhang Yuquan, an international relations specialist at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou.

“If the US military believes antagonistic acts in the region are in the US interest, we’ll see more of this to come,” Zhang said. “The US has become quite anxious about China’s rise in recent years.”

Philip Davidson, incoming commander of the US armed forces in the Pacific, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month that “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States”.

Including China in the Pacific drills was “designed to help with misunderstandings and to build upon cooperation, which was supposed to help deal with the most contentious issues”, according to Oriana Skylar Mastro, assistant professor of security studies at Georgetown University and Jeane Kirkpatrick visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

“The logic behind these military exchanges has weakened,” Mastro said.

“The US position was that through engagement, China would come to understand that they were better off when the US is in charge,” she said. “I thought that was naive from the very beginning, but now I think many areas of the US government are coming to that conclusion.”

China stakes patrols near disputed islands as ‘warning to Vietnam’

But the Pentagon’s move was not a surprise given tensions between Washington and Beijing over trade and politics, and it would not be too much of a loss for the PLA Navy, said Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie. “The Chinese were not part of the core aspects anyway,” he said, referring to the past two drills where China took part in areas such as disaster relief and search and rescue operations.

China’s participation in the past two drills improved understanding between the Chinese, US and other navies, its knowledge of how foreign exercises are conducted, and experience in international search and rescue cooperation – but it did not help much with its military capabilities, according to Li.

“This is a deliberate move to isolate China in the region,” he said. “But the worst aspect is when there’s a need for international cooperation in the future, it won’t be so easy for them to get that from China.”

The decision was announced before Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met his US counterpart Mike Pompeo in Washington. He said at a joint press conference afterwards that the move was not constructive and was “unhelpful to the trust and cooperation between the Chinese and US militaries”.

Pompeo said he had raised US “concern” with Wang about Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea, and that he would leave decisions about international military exercises to the defence department.

Additional reporting by Zhenhua Lu