The Pragmatist’s Case for Keeping China in RIMPAC


Last week, the Department of Defense announced that it had disinvited China from Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC), the world’s most prestigious multinational naval exercise, scheduled to begin June 27 in Hawaii. The Pentagon justified expelling China as “an initial response to China’s continued militarization of the South China Sea,” though the announcement’s timing raises suspicions that the United States sought to retaliate against China for reportedly cautioning North Korean leader Kim Jong Un about the foundering U.S.-North Korean summit. While China’s recent deployment of new missiles and bomber aircraft to the South China Sea is worrisome, kicking China out of RIMPAC was not the most savvy response. Counterintuitively, the stronger move would have been keeping China in the exercise, at least for the time being, to continue gaining valuable information about Chinese military proficiency and to fortify a political coalition to resist serious Chinese aggression in the future.

China previously attended the biennial RIMPAC exercise in 2014 and 2016, although officially participating did not stop it from sending an intelligence ship to spy on the 2014 event, a decision U.S. Admiral Samuel Locklear tactfully called “a little odd.” However, the United States and China regularly cancel military-to-military interactions, including high-level dialogues, to protest one another’s behavior. Since the end of the Cold War, the countries have suspended contacts more than half a dozen times, including after the 1995–1996 Taiwan Straits crisis, the 1999 accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, and the 2008 and 2010 U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Officials rarely articulate their underlying goals when cancelling military contacts, preferring instead to emphasize the other side’s transgressions. Yet we can infer that the United States suspends contacts with China to advance at least two objectives. First, it hopes suspension will spur China to consider changing its objectionable behavior. Second, it wants to draw attention to Chinese misdeeds and mobilize political support for punishing China accordingly. Expelling China from RIMPAC 2018 will likely not advance either objective as effectively as U.S. policymakers hope.

For behavior change to succeed, Chinese military leaders would have to cherish RIMPAC so deeply that they advocate backing down to U.S. demands to avoid losing their invitation. Their advocacy would have to penetrate the communist party’s sprawling bureaucracy and sway top leaders, namely the assertive President Xi Jinping. This outcome seems unlikely. While Chinese military leaders value learning from other navies at RIMPAC, they presumably do not view those modest educational gains as more important than fortifying their position in the South China Sea. Basking in RIMPAC’s Hawaiian sunshine is wonderful, but is it worth bucking the party line only to be ousted in one of Xi’s periodic military officer purges? Probably not.

Booting China out of RIMPAC also will not generate much additional political counterpressure against China beyond what already exists. Some U.S. allies might quietly rejoice at China’s expulsion. Several Japanese analysts, for instance, have worried privately that RIMPAC’s seemingly innocuous non-combat drills will unintentionally improve China’s warfighting capacity, including its ability to use ship-borne helicopters for anti-submarine warfare. Despite such concerns, U.S. allies have not lost faith in American resolve or hopped on the Chinese bandwagon. They gain confidence from concrete demonstrations of American commitment, including recent increases in freedom of navigation operations, arms sales, and forward deployments of U.S. ground forces. As a symbolic gesture, expelling China from RIMPAC was unnecessary for preserving U.S. alliance cohesion. In fact, some U.S. allies and partners might react negatively to the RIMPAC decision because they fear being trapped between the feuding American and Chinese giants.

Keeping China in RIMPAC would have been a stronger move, surprising as that may seem. It would have provided more opportunities to study Chinese military progress, particularly the navy’s ability to sustain out-of-area operations far from Chinese shores. Though China sends elite forces to RIMPAC that are not necessarily representative of its overall military strength, interacting with those forces for weeks at a time reveals valuable information that could not be obtained otherwise. Satellites, for example, probably will not capture the interpersonal dynamics between China’s junior officers and non-commissioned officers, a key determinant of tactical effectiveness. RIMPAC generates plenty of information on such intangible factors, providing a more complete picture of China’s strengths and weaknesses. As the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s senior intelligence officer judged, during RIMPAC the United States and China have “learned a great deal about how the other conducts routine operations.” Removing China from RIMPAC 2018 sacrifices a valuable source of knowledge about China’s military.

Of course, kicking China out of RIMPAC also means the Chinese cannot use the exercise for their own intelligence gathering. The key question then becomes: Does the exercise provide the United States or China with more information? The answer is almost surely China since, as a relatively inexperienced navy, China has more to learn than the United States. As one U.S. military planner told me, “We teach them a lot. They teach us very little.” While U.S. policymakers abhor unequal gains due to their fear of being exploited, they should not confuse quantity of information with quality of information. The Department of Defense proceeds cautiously when planning military engagements to avoid violating the National Defense Authorization Act of 2000’s prohibitions on sharing sensitive warfighting information with China. While unintended disclosures might occur during RIMPAC, various procedural safeguards make that unlikely. As a result, the Chinese probably do not gain better information participating in RIMPAC than they would observing it from a nearby intelligence ship, their preferred option in 2012 and 2014.

Besides information, keeping China in RIMPAC would have better positioned the United States to mobilize a coalition to resist serious Chinese aggression in the future. Throughout history, savvy leaders have engaged their emerging rivals for as long as possible to contain dangerous competition and, failing that, to portray their rival as predator and themselves as prey, thereby winning sympathy at home and abroad. Prior to World War I, Winston Churchill pursued naval arms control talks with Germany hoping that, if they languished, skeptical British liberals would realize that Germany was hostile and agree to fund his shipbuilding program. Engaging a rival laid the groundwork for more effective confrontation later. Today in East Asia, many publics view engaging China as equally or more important than confronting it. These skeptical publics may not rally to America’s side in a showdown with China unless they sincerely believe that Washington had done everything possible to conciliate Beijing. Including China in RIMPAC placed the United States on the moral high ground. Expelling it represents a step in the opposite direction.

By kicking China out of RIMPAC for concerning, but not game-changing, developments in the South China Sea, the United States has forfeited a unique source of information about Chinese military modernization and undercut its future ability to mobilize political support to confront China when it counts. The move symbolizes America’s tendency to treat military contacts with China as a barometer of short-term comity rather than a tool of long-term statecraft. The United States cannot undo its decision this year without looking foolish. In 2020, however, it should consider readmitting China so long as it adheres to some basic ground rules — starting with not sending ships to spy on an exercise in which it is participating.


Travis Sharp is a non-resident fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point and a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. His dissertation explores the history of RIMPAC and other military-to-military engagements between great power rivals.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Shannon Renfroe

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