WASHINGTON: Defense Secretary Ash Carter — for now — is resisting congressional calls to uninvite China from the biggest naval exercise in the world, known as RIMPAC.
In a July 16 letter to Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain, Carter goes to some lengths to avoid offending China, on the one hand, and, on the other, to placate McCain and the committee’s ranking member, Jack Reed, who don’t want China taking part in RIMPAC 2016. The two defense lawmakers wrote Carter a May 21 letter about this. In his response to the SASC leaders, Carter says China “is engaging in some conduct that is causing us to respond and to draw closer to the many allies and partners that share our concern.”
Why is all this happening? China, as Sen. McCain and others of both Democratic and Republican persuasions in the House and Senate keep reminding the administration, is violating international law by building temporary structures in the South China Sea and claiming these are now Chinese territory. International law is very clear that man-made islands and similar structures may not be considered territory.
Also, China has threatened and physically bullied maritime forces from Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and other neighbors over the last few years, claiming that South China Sea waters inside the so-called Nine Dash line are, were, and always will be Chinese waters.
In response, the administration has bolstered its ties to allies and partners in there region, and it has called out China on some of the issues some of the time. However, I understand that we have granted China de facto recognition of the temporary structures so far by ordering our maritime and air forces to observe a 12 nautical mile limit — the international standard for the extent of territorial waters — around the structures. At the same time, the US did send a P-8A aircraft around the Chinese-built structures in May, complete with a CNN crew aboard.
The flight elicited sharp reactions from the Chinese military and the Chinese Foreign Ministry. The video marked the first time the Pentagon released video of China’s activities.
Carter’s letter clearly indicates the care with which the administration is treating these issues. After noting his “support” Pacific Command’s invitation to the Chinese to participate in RIMPAC again, the defense secretary says he “shares” McCain and Reed’s concerns about “developments in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.”
But Carter writes that he won’t uninvite China from RIMPAC “at this time” (an important caveat) because the exercise helps “demonstrate US leadership and determination to all maritime powers in the region. including China.” He also notes that the huge aggregation of ships and planes and helicopters allows all participants “to exercise key operational practices and procedures that are essential to ensuring that tactical misunderstandings do not escalate into crises.”
And Carter does make it clear that the Chinese may be dropped from RIMPAC when he says: “I am closely monitoring events in the South China Sea and may modify our defense engagement decisions based on evolving circumstances.”
Maintaining and improving military to military relations with the Chinese, and showing the People Republic what we mean by transparency and what the benefits to both sides can be of sharing information, are laudable goals. Allowing the Chinese to act in ways to limit international navigation and are fundamental violations of international law are not. Our allies and partners — not to mention Capitol Hill — are watching our every move.