The Defense Department said Wednesday it was rescinding China’s invitation to participate in the Rim of the Pacific exercise in Hawaii because of what it called a “violation of the promise” not to militarize the Spratly Islands.
“The United States is committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific. China’s continued militarization of disputed features in the South China Sea only serve to raise tensions and destabilize the region,” Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Logan, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement. “As an initial response to China’s continued militarization of the South China Sea we have disinvited the PLA Navy from the 2018 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) Exercise. China’s behavior is inconsistent with the principles and purposes of the RIMPAC exercise.”
Logan said the U.S. had evidence China has deployed anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missile systems, and electronic jammers in the disputed Spratly Islands, the chain in the South China Sea that is claimed by China as well as Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam. The spokesman also cited China’s recent landing of a bomber at Woody Island, a part of the Paracels, which is also claimed by Vietnam, as a cause of concern.
“We believe these recent deployments and the continued militarization of these features is a violation of the promise that President Xi made to the United States and the World not to militarize the Spratly Islands,” Logan added.
The Defense Department’s decision Wednesday coincided with the visit to Washington by Wang Yi, who is China’s highest-ranked diplomat. Wang met with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly to discuss North Korea, but the two men also discussed the Pentagon’s decision. Pompeo said he would let the Defense Department “to talk about that. Only to say that we have expressed consistent concern about militarization of the South China Sea.”
Wang had more to say; he called the disinvitation a “very unconstructive move, nonconstructive move. It’s also a decision that’s taken lightly. It’s unhelpful to mutual understanding between China and the U.S. We hope the U.S. will change such a negative mindset.”
“China is only building civilian and some necessary defense facilities on our own islands” in the South China Sea, he said. “That is the right to self-defense and preservation of every sovereign state. It is a normal deployment and has nothing to do with militarization, just like the U.S. has military presence in Hawaii, in Guam. And China’s deployment is at a much smaller scale than the U.S. It’s just out of necessary defense purposes. We don’t hope to see any exaggeration or hype-up of this matter.”
The Pentagon’s decision also came against the backdrop of the trade dispute with China. Talks between the two countries ended recently: The U.S. said it would delay the tariffs on Chinese products entering the country. China’s commitment were vaguer—though it did promise to lower the the trade deficit with the U.S. by an unnamed amount.