The late June 2017 confirmation from the Pentagon that the People's Republic of China (PRC) has been invited to participate in the 2018 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise is a seminal event in the history of U.S.-PRC relations. It appears to establish a policy of permanent and uninterrupted RIMPAC invitations to the Chinese. Unfortunately, the invitation will someday be remembered as the formal beginning of the end of U.S. influence in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.
Stated another way, this decision has formalized a U.S. policy of accommodation, where no matter what China does in the maritime domain, the United States—regardless which political party is in office—will continue to invite the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) to participate in the exercise as if China were a treaty ally.
Senior U.S. Navy leaders have championed the invitations as being of immense benefit. In May, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson, when asked about the invitation, stated that these exercises “are the sort of things that bring us all together in sort of positive, constructive ways.” More recently, in a speech in Brisbane, Australia, the U.S. Pacific Command Commander, Admiral Harry Harris stated, “Our goal remains to convince China that its best future comes from peaceful cooperation, meaningful participation in the current rules-based international order, and honoring its international commitments.” As such, inviting Beijing to RIMPAC is presented as an effective tool for convincing the PRC to behave acceptably.
For 40 years, that same logic has been used to promote a “Kissinger Doctrine” of nonprovocation and accommodation. While it may have been in the United States’ best interest to leverage its relationship with China as a balance against the Soviet Union, it surely has not worked during the past 15 years of the PRC's "peaceful" rise. The same “Mandarins” within the Pentagon assured us the PRC’s military and naval modernization were all part of the normal trajectory for a nation of its size, coming out of a period of intense backwardness (inflicted by Mao and his Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward), and that “engagement” was and is a vital part of U.S.-PRC relations.
At the start of the new administration in Washington, there was hope that RIMPAC invitations to China would be based on a “results-oriented” approach. Now six months into the Trump administration, the Pentagon’s Mandarins have provided the President a recommendation that continues the previous administration's policy of inviting the PLAN to RIMPAC, and have done so at a time when China has scoffed openly at the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s July 2016 ruling on the Philippines’ South China Sea case, done little to constrain the reckless actions of the North Korean regime, and continues to threaten and harass our Japanese allies.
Why would the Navy and Pentagon leaders make such a recommendation? It is because they believe that by doing so the United States would keep the relationship on track, would encourage more dialog, and therefore would ensure continued peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.
This belief in the innate benefit of "engagement" is akin to superstition. When objectively examined there is scant empirical proof that navy-to-navy engagement with the PRC has changed or will change their behavior. Nor is there any proof that regional tensions have abated. The overwhelming evidence, in fact, points in the opposite direction. China's behavior and actions have become more recalcitrant, more aggressive, more dismissive of the rule of law, and more dangerous to the Indo-Asia-Pacific region despite the United States’ engagement policy.
If you are trying to understand the decision-making process behind inviting China to RIMPAC, you may want to reread George Orwell’s book 1984. Like Winston Smith—the central character of the book—it seems we are being asked to believe that "2+2=5."
No matter the rationalization 2+2 will never equal 5. Likewise, senior Navy leaders’ assertions that inviting the PLAN to RIMPAC will bolster U.S. national security never will be correct. China was invited to observe RIMPAC 2012, which it did with an intelligence-gathering ship, using the opportunity to gather intelligence on the U.S. Navy and our friends. In 2014 and 2016, China was an actual participant in RIMPAC. Despite playing an active role in those exercises, China again sent an intelligence-gathering ship to vacuum-up signals intelligence on the U.S. Navy and our allies. This is akin to a neighbor who comes to dinner at your house and, during the course of the evening, looks through your medicine cabinet and steals the password for your wireless modem.
Despite the PLAN’s participation in RIMPAC 2014 and 2016, China has not slowed its construction of islands in the South China Sea. It has not reduced pressure on the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, or Malaysia over fishing and mineral rights in the South China Sea. It has not backed off from pressuring Japan over territorial rights in the Senkakus. It has not reduced cyber espionage or piracy against U.S. companies. It has not accepted the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s July 2016 ruling. And China has not changed course on human rights of its own citizens. One must ask, what have the United States and its allies gained from the PLAN’s participation in RIMPAC?
Are we to believe that 2+2=5, or will we insist that 2+2=4 and any invitation to China to participate in RIMPAC must be based on responsible behavior and respect for international norms? If China wants to participate in RIMPAC, it should behave responsibly, as all other RIMPAC nations do. If China continues to make ludicrous sovereignty claims and act as a bully, it should not be rewarded with invitations to the most prestigious international naval exercise in the Pacific.
Captain Fanell served a career in naval intelligence and retired in 2015. His last tour was as director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
Photo caption: Chinese and U.S. officers plan a submarine rescue mission during the 2016 RIMPAC exercise. Credit: DVIDS