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. Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of Naval Operations, is in favor. Bloomberg’s Josh Rogin reports that the Office of the Secretary of Defense is against and the White House is undecided.
Rogin worries that “so far, China is paying no price for its aggression.” The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda contended that the U.S. “may have more to gain by excluding China from the exercise going forward, barring a major shift in China’s behavior.”
Bonnie Glaser of CSIS suggested holding the threat “over China’s head.” 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. Chinese involvement would reduce the burden on the U.S. and allied navies.
The question also involves military‐military cooperation. Contacts between the Chinese and U.S. navies are few; those between China’s forces and those of countries at odds with Beijing’s territorial claims, such as Japan and the Philippines, are even fewer.
Obviously, there always will be important security considerations. Nevertheless, 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 opposing forces. 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 at least 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 China. Inviting China in last year was a public affirmation that Beijing had a welcome role to play in regional naval affairs. Hence American policy toward China looked 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.
Finally, participation can be seen as a reward and denial as a punishment for China. No doubt, relations have grown tenser. Beijing has sharply challenged other nations’ territorial claims throughout shared waters in the Asia‐Pacific. The U.S. has gotten directly involved in response.
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. China 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.
“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 seek other 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.