The Buzz

America and China’s Armed Forces Are Training Together in the Pacific Right Now

Current Chinese participation in the large, multi-national Rim of the Pacific training exercise is both providing the world with a glimpse into some of its most current naval technologies and raising the prospect of evovling international cooperation. 

Senior Pentagon and Navy officials regard ongoing disputes with China over territorial claims in the South China Sea as part of a larger, complex relationship between the two countries involving competition and military tensions alongside cooperation, military-to-military exercises, port visits and mutual efforts to fight international maritime piracy.

During RIMPAC 2016, the Chinese brought a destroyer and a hospital ship, according to a report in Stars and Stripes. 

Nonetheless, continued Chinese provocations in the South China Sea increase the risk of disrupting the balance of the U.S.-China relationship away from a broader context of collabporation and pushing it more substantially toward an intensifying military rivalry. Furthermore, upcoming China-Philippines arbitration is expected to bear prominently upon dynamics in the region. The two-countries are locked in a territorial dispute. 

While the ongoing problems do not appear likely to result in military confrontation, the U.S.-China relationship seems to fall along two distinct, yet interwoven fault lines; one trajectory seems to be leading toward growing disagreements over actions in the South China Sea, and yet this stands in a delicate or precarious balance with fast-growing good-will, port-visits and military exercises between the two countries.

Navy Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, seems to indicate that both trajectories could potentially co-exist while, at the same time, expressing strong opposition to China’s territorial assertions in the South China Sea.

(This first appeared in Scout Warrior here.)

In public remarks months ago, Harris seemed to both address the seriousness of tensions and disagreements over issues in the South China Sea and also indicate areas of U.S.-Chinese partnership. There seems to be a clear hope among U.S. military leaders that South China Sea issues can be resolved without confrontation.  A peaceful resolution of some kind could mean that the problems with China in the area do not necessarily have to greatly alter, disrupt or erase the larger calculus of the U.S.-China relationship -- which includes growing cooperation.

“While we certainly disagree on some topics – the most public being China’s claims in the South China Sea and our activities there – there are many areas where we have common ground,” Harris said during remarks earlier this year at Stanford Center Peking University, Beijing.

Harris seemed to suggest the prospect or hope that South China Sea issues could either be resolved, ameliorated or lessened as other areas of mutual cooperation grow. He cited Chinese President Xi and President Obama’s recent pledge to verify the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. This is naturally of particular relevance in light of North Korea’s consistent provocationa and claim to have tested a Hydrogen bomb.

Harris also cited the historic 2014 Chinese participation in the Rim of the Pacific military training exercise. He added that Chinese Navy ships previously made a port visit to Mayport, Fla., - home of the U.S. Navy’s 4th Fleet and a Chinese Hospital Ship visited a U.S. Navy port in San Diego.

Harris also cited a USS Stethem visit to Shanghai and more than 30 military exchanges between Chinese and US officers and generals. 

South China Sea Territorial Disputes – China’s Man-Made Island Building

These instances of growing U.S.-China partnership provide a nuanced or complicated context in which South China Sea disagreements are taking place.

Clearly, while areas of evolving cooperation with the Chinese military are an important priority for the Pentagon, they do not preclude the importance of conducting Naval patrols within the 12-mile territorial boundary of waters the Pentagon believes are erroneously claimed by China.

Several months ago, a U.S. Navy destroyer again sailed within 12 miles of island territory claimed by China in the South China Sea in a clear effort to refute sovereignty claims made by China and assert what the Pentagon calls “Freedom of Navigation” exercises.

The exercise, conducted by the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur, took place in the vicinity of Triton Island in the Paracel Islands as a way to challenge excessive maritime claims, a Pentagon statement said.

While the Pentagon does not officially take a position regarding the many territorial claims in the contested island areas of the South China Sea, senior Department of Defense officials do not recognize island territories expanded by man-made or artificial structures to represent legitimate or legal territorial expansion. 

“This operation challenged attempts by the three claimants, China, Taiwan and Vietnam, to restrict navigation rights and freedoms around the features they claim by policies that require prior permission or notification of transit within territorial seas. The excessive claims regarding Triton Island are inconsistent with international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention,” Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Bill Urban told Scout Warrior in a statement.

Rich in natural resources and located in a strategically significant portion of the Pacific Ocean, island territories in the vicinity are claimed by China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and others.