The Buzz

America Opposes Aggressive Chinese Actions in Asia (But Trains with China's Military?)

The US government is sending mixed signals to American allies in Asia by opposing Chinese territorial encroachment while allowing China to take part in a regional military exercise.

Five naval vessels from the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) recently met up with US warships in preparation for the latest biennial international naval war games known as Rim of the Pacific, or RIMPAC.

The exercise, held every two years, include navies from 27 nations along with 25,000 military personnel, 45 ships, five submarines and more than 200 aircraft.

Chinese state media gave prominent coverage to the five PLAN warships that were met by US vessels in the western Pacific on June 20 in the run up to the naval exercises that begin June 30.

Warning ‘Anybody’:

On the same day, the US Navy publicized the transit of two aircraft carrier strike groups in the Philippine Sea in a major show of military strength that Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said was a meant as a sign of US resolve in support of local allies. The four-star admiral said during remarks at a Washington conference that such dual carrier operations are rare but were an important “signal to everybody in the region that we’re committed, we’re going to be there for our allies, to reassure them, and for anybody who wants to destabilize that region, we hope there’s a deterrent message there as well.”

The “anybody” was a veiled reference to China since the CNO, following softline policies of the Obama administration, was seeking to play down the growing challenge posed by China. During his remarks at the conference, Richardson appeared to minimize China’s growing high-technology weapons capabilities, known as anti-access and area denial systems that include long-range precision guided missiles. He called the weapons “sort of an aspiration” and “really nothing new,” suggesting China could not really use the weapons effectively.

Others in the Pentagon, however, are much more worried than the admiral about China’s growing weapons capabilities that have been built up over the past several decades with the strategic goal of driving US forces out of Asia. That strategy is now playing out in destabilizing Chinese territorial claims in the South China and East China Seas.

China Asymmetric Warfare Threat:

China’s increasing asymmetric warfare capabilities – like its long-range anti-ship ballistic missiles, anti-satellite weapons, and cyber warfare capabilities – pose strategic threats to US forces that are difficult to match. “In all areas of these niche weapons capabilities, the Chinese are either equal to the United States or are rapidly catching up,” said a Pentagon official.

Analysts say the strategic message of US commitment to regional stability and security is undermined by allowing China to gain international prestige with its naval participation in RIMPAC.

China’s RIMPAC participation comes at the same time Beijing is engaged in a long-term campaign of island-building that is viewed as a covert effort to take over the South China Sea. China also has targeted reclaiming control of Japan’s Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, that China calls its Diaoyudao.

China stepped up its coercive diplomacy over the Senkakus earlier this month by sending a warship within 24 miles of the islands. “We are worried that this action raises tensions to a higher level,” Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo after the incursion.

Pentagon Mum on Senkakus Incident:

The Pentagon made no protests or statements of support for its Japanese allies. A Pentagon spokesman, asked about the Chinese naval action, dismissed it as a regional matter between Beijing and Tokyo despite the fact the Pentagon has said several times in the past that any Chinese military action against the Senkakus would trigger a US response under the US-Japan mutual defense treaty.

Technically, there are concerns China will use its participation in RIMPAC for valuable intelligence gathering that could give the PLAN an edge in a future crisis or conflict. A Pentagon spokesman also told reporters that the PLAN participation will be strictly limited under US law that prevents the sharing of sensitive war-fighting information with China during exchanges and drills. “The U.S. Navy has operational security safeguards to protect US technology and [US] tactics, techniques and procedures from disclosure,” said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, the spokesman. “That’s the case for all nations that participate in RIMPAC.”

One of the clearest signs that the US Navy is concerned about its mixed signals was seen in its daily news clipping service, widely distributed throughout the Pentagon and private sector that blacked out all coverage of the recent US-China naval rendezvous. And no major news media reported on it as well.

Behind the sensitivities is the Navy’s embarrassment from China’s last participation in RIMPAC, in 2014, when the PLAN took part in the war games as a participant, but also sent one of its intelligence-gathering ships to spy on the exercises – undermining what proponents have said is the key US objective of its engagement with the Chinese military — trying to build trust.

Crossed Signals: