The Buzz

This Is Why America Needs to Kick China Out of RIMPAC

Hawaii’s Rep. Mark Takai has objected to China’s participation at the 2016 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise based at Pearl Harbor. Takai also would amend the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to bar China if its invitation is not revoked by the Pentagon. The Obama Administration should rescind the conditional invitation for the PLA to join RIMPAC 2016.

While the Navy’s Third Fleet in San Diego technically invites foreign navies to RIMPAC, the review of whether to include China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy reflects the views of PACOM, the Navy, the Pentagon, and the White House. PLA presence at the premier maritime warfare exercise remains sensitive, because of concerns about protecting US and allied technology, tactics, techniques, and procedures; preventing disclosure of defense articles and services; complying with US laws; and including China but excluding Taiwan despite US assistance to Taiwan against China’s threats.

As Takai pointed out, China’s behavior in the South China Sea is the “polar opposite of US objectives” and entertaining the PLA at RIMPAC would reward China for bad behavior. China has faced little cost for bad behavior that is wide-ranging, including the PLA’s cyber-enabled theft of US economic secrets and declaration of an “East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ)” in 2013 to attempt to nationalize international airspace over that sea. Concerns are rising about China’s future claim of a similarly restrictive and threatening “South China Sea ADIZ.” RIMPAC would legitimize and help the PLA in exercises aimed to help and reassure allies and partners, some facing China’s menace.

Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee in September of last year, PACOM head Adm. Harry Harris warned about the dangers of China’s behavior. Two days before Harris’ testimony, two PLA aircraft intercepted, in an unsafe manner, a US RC-135 over the Yellow Sea. This incident occurred after a PLA fighter’s dangerous intercept of a US P-8 aircraft in August 2014.

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter testified at a Mar. 22 hearing of House Armed Services Committee that the Defense Department continues to review the offer to the PLA to participate in RIMPAC this summer. Nonetheless, Carter argued that the United States does not want to exclude anyone from the regional “security architecture.”

The issue is not exclusion, however. The administration does not include Taiwan and disinvited Thailand in the past. The US engages with select allies and partners, ranging from intelligence-sharing to wargames. China does not enjoy access to many US military operations due to concerns about defense, counter-intelligence, and the law. Sanctions imposed after the Tiananmen crackdown of 1989 prohibit arms sales to China. China simply is not in alignment with US and allied security interests and does not play by the same international rules. At a meeting of defense ministers in Singapore last May, Carter warned that, in the South China Sea, “China is out of step with both the international rules and norms that underscore the Asia Pacific’s security architecture, and the regional consensus that favors diplomacy and opposes coercion.” China’s actions undermine security. As a result, China marginalizes itself.

The Obama administration has attempted in good faith to bring China into the regional order, even inviting the PLA to participate at RIMPAC 2014. The gamble has not paid off. Despite some improvement in tactical navy-to-navy coordination, Beijing’s behavior has worsened; China has been building man-made “islands” in the South China Sea. China continues to depict its “nine-dash line” as an egregious “national border” in maps of the South China Sea.

Secretary Carter warned at the hearing in March that no country should be militarizing features in that sea and criticized China’s “aggressive militarization” there. He has repeatedly declared that, “make no mistake, the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as we do around the world, and the South China Sea will not be an exception.” The US Navy conducts Freedom of Navigation (FON) operations to counter China’s excessive claims.

It is time for the administration to heed Congress, send a smart message to China, and stop the mixed signals by precluding the PLA’s participation at RIMPAC 2016. Instead of “doubling-down” on the past gamble, it is time to be strong and proactive amid rising danger.

There are many reasons to exclude China. Precluding PLA participation at RIMPAC would ensure that limited financial and other resources are focused on allies and partners, and are not diverted to benefit China.

Protecting RIMPAC’s integrity ensures compliance with laws. Congress passed legislation to stop the US military from helping the PLA develop warfighting capabilities. The FY2000 NDAA, P.L. 106-65, prohibits the Secretary of Defense from authorizing any military contact with the PLA if that contact would “create a national security risk due to an inappropriate exposure” of the PLA to any of the following 12 operational areas: force projection operations; nuclear operations; advanced combined-arms and joint combat operations; advanced logistical operations; chemical and biological defense and other capabilities related to weapons of mass destruction; surveillance and reconnaissance operations; joint warfighting experiments and other activities related to transformations in warfare; military space operations; other advanced capabilities of the Armed Forces; arms sales or military-related technology transfers; release of classified or restricted information; and access to a Defense Department laboratory. The law allows only two exceptions: search and rescue or humanitarian operations or exercises.