China slams US for linking Rimpac exercise disinvitation to South China Sea

The Pentagon on Wednesday disinvited China from a major US-hosted naval drill in response to what it sees as Beijing's militarisation of islands in the South China Sea, a decision China's top diplomat Wang Yi called an "unconstructive move".
Personnel from the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy take part in a military display in the South China Sea.
Personnel from the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy take part in a military display in the South China Sea.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING/WASHINGTON (REUTERS, AFP) - China on Thursday (May 24) criticised the United States for uninviting it from a major US-hosted naval drill in response to what it sees as Beijing’s militarisation of islands in the disputed South China Sea.

China has sovereign rights in the South China Sea and it is not realistic for the United States to use this kind of action to try to coerce it, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a daily news briefing.

The Defence Ministry meanwhile said closing the door to communication does not help Sino-US military mutual trust and cooperation. 

Being invited or not invited cannot change China’s intention to play a role in protecting peace and stability in the Asia Pacific region, the ministry said in a statement.

The Pentagon had pulled its invitation for China to join maritime exercises in the Pacific because of Beijing's "continued militarisation" of the South China Sea, an official said on Wednesday (May 23), in the latest sign of US-China strains.

Personnel from more than two dozen countries train together and work on seamanship across the vast region for the biennial Rim of the Pacific (Rimpac) exercise organised by the US Navy.

"China's continued militarisation of disputed features in the South China Sea only serves to raise tensions and destabilise the region," Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Chris Logan said.

"We have disinvited the PLA Navy from the 2018 Rim of the Pacific Exercise. China's behaviour is inconsistent with the principles and purposes of the Rimpac exercise."

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the US decision to exclude it from Rimpac was "very non-constructive."

"It's also a decision taken lightly and is unhelpful to mutual understanding between China and the US," Wang said at a press conference with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after the two met in Washington.

Pompeo did not comment on the matter, saying only that the pair had had a "good discussion" about American concerns of militarisation of the South China Sea.

MILITARY HARDWARE

China has deployed anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems and electronic jammers to "contested features" in the Spratly Islands region of the South China Sea, Logan said.

 
 

"While China has maintained that the construction of the islands is to ensure safety at sea, navigation assistance, search and rescue, fisheries protection and other non-military functions, the placement of these weapon systems is only for military use," Logan said, noting that the landing of a Chinese bomber on Woody Island had only exacerbated strains.

The decision to pull China's invitation comes amid new tensions between Beijing and Washington.

President Donald Trump said on Wednesday that he was not satisfied with talks aimed at averting a trade war with China.

And on Tuesday, he suggested that Chinese President Xi Jinping might have played a role in North Korea's recent threats to withdraw from a planned summit with the US.

'FREEDOM OF NAVIGATION'

China claims most of the South China Sea, believed to hold vast oil and gas deposits and through which US$5 trillion (S$6.7 trillion) in trade passes annually. It has built up islands and military installations across the region.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims in the sea.

The US Navy periodically conducts "freedom of navigation" operations in which naval vessels sail close to the Chinese-claimed militarised islets.

Logan said the Pentagon had urged China to remove its military installations "immediately" and to "reverse course" on its militarisation of the sea.

Given China's growing military confidence and its heavy investment in the South China Sea, such a move is highly unlikely.

Logan added that Xi had broken a promise he made to the international community that China would not militarise the Spratly Islands.

According to the Navy, this year's Rimpac was originally slated to include more than 1,000 personnel from 27 countries.

An invitation to the exercises, which are held in and around the Hawaiian Islands and Southern California, carries some political weight as it offers legitimacy and acceptance to participating military forces.

Thailand was disinvited in 2014 following a coup.

Rimpac began in 1971 and was held annually until 1974, when it switched to every two years due to its large scale. The founding nations are Australia, Canada and the United States.

China has participated twice previously, in 2014 and 2016.