Excluding China from Military Exercises Would be Short-Sighted

Last year China joined the U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific Exercise for the first time. However, Beijing’s role in RIMPAC has become controversial. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain recently opined: “I would not have invited them this time because of their bad behavior.”

The Obama administration is conflicted. Bloomberg’s Josh Rogin worried that “so far, China is paying no price for its aggression.” Bonnie Glaser of CSIS suggested using the exercises to threaten the PRC. Patrick Cronin of the Center for a New American Security was less certain, acknowledging benefits of China’s inclusion: “It all depends on what you think RIMPAC should be.”

That is the key question. In part the exercise is about mutually beneficial cooperation for non-military purposes. With the simultaneous growth in commercial traffic and national navies, there likely will be increasing need and opportunity for joint search and rescue, operational safety, anti-piracy patrols, and humanitarian relief.

The question also involves military-military cooperation. Contacts between the Chinese and U.S. navies are few; those between the PRC’s forces and those of countries at odds with Beijing’s territorial claims, such as Japan and the Philippines, are even fewer.

There is value in allowing potential opponents a better assessment of one’s capabilities. Chinese expectations may be more realistic if they have a better sense of what and who they might face, especially the navies of their neighbors, which are expanding and becoming more competent.

Moreover, demystifying the other side makes it harder to demonize one’s potential adversaries. Obviously, even warm personal relationships don’t prevent governments from careening off to war with one another. However, learning that the other side’s military personnel are not devils incarnate might cause leaders to temper the advice they offer in a crisis.

Participation in the exercise also may be viewed as evidence that the U.S. is or is not attempting to contain the PRC. Hence inviting China in last year made American policy look a little less like containment.

Unfortunately, RIMPAC is too small and unimportant to much matter. No one who looks at U.S. behavior, and certainly no Chinese official who does so, can believe that Washington is engaged in anything except containment.

Granted, it can be pursued more or less ostentatiously. However, strengthening alliances surrounding China, moving more military forces to the Asia-Pacific, bolstering the militaries of neighboring states, and consistently backing the positions taken by the PRC’s antagonists outweigh an invitation to naval maneuvers every two years.

Finally, participation can be seen as a reward and denial as a punishment for China. Thus, Panda suggests barring Beijing participation so long as it does not respect freedom of navigation. He wrote: “The magnitude is severe enough to condition China’s behavior while not derailing decades of fragile U.S.-China goodwill altogether.”

If all it took to bring to heel America’s looming co-superpower and peer competitor was cancelling its navy out of a nonessential ocean exercise, Washington should have tried that tactic long ago. The PRC likely prefers to join than to sit at the sidelines. However, the benefits remain too small to cause China’s leaders to change fundamental policy objectives.

As I wrote for China-US Focus:  “The PRC is a revisionist power, as America once was. The former will seek to reverse or overturn past geopolitical decisions which it believes to be unfair or unrealistic. Beijing will abandon that course only when the costs of doing so rise sufficiently.”

“Losing” China’s RIMPAC invitation won’t make a difference. In contrast, an increasingly well-armed and well-organized set of neighbors willing to stand up to Chinese bullying would.

“Friendship diplomacy” cannot eliminate ideological differences and geopolitical concerns. Nevertheless, the U.S. and its allies and friends should continue to seek opportunities to invest China in a stable geopolitical order. Doing so won’t be easy, but extending an invitation to RIMPAC next year would be a worthwhile step in the meantime.