WASHINGTON – The Pentagon said Wednesday it has withdrawn an invitation for China to participate in a multinational naval exercise the U.S. is hosting this summer, a sign of fresh tension between Pacific powers.
The move comes amid high-stakes maneuvering over North Korea's nuclear program, which is scheduled to be the subject of a meeting in June between President Donald Trump and the North's leader, Kim Jong Un. Trump on Tuesday said he suspected that the North's recent talk of scrapping the summit could reflect influence from Chinese President Xi Jinping, who recently met with Kim.
Washington also is engaged in a trade dispute with China over U.S. complaints about market access and technology policy.
The U.S. had included China in the past two versions of the naval exercise known as Rim of the Pacific, or RimPac, in 2014 and 2016. The engagements were part of an effort by the Obama administration to stabilize military relations with Beijing even as Washington challenged China to stop placing military assets in the South China Sea. China is pitted against smaller neighbors in multiple disputes over islands, coral reefs and lagoons in waters crucial for global commerce and rich in fish and potential oil and gas reserves.
Wednesday's announcement raises the prospect of a renewed chill in military relations, which have been disrupted many times by China's objections to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and other issues.
Asked about the Pentagon's move, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters at the State Department, "We find that a very non-constructive move." He said China hopes the U.S. will change its "negative mindset."
The U.S. military calls RimPac the world's largest international maritime exercise and says it "helps participants foster and sustain the cooperative relationships critical to ensuring the safety of sea lanes and security on the world's oceans."
A Pentagon statement said the decision to disinvite the Chinese navy was "an initial response" to what it called China's militarization of the South China Sea. China's Defense Ministry had said in January that it was consulting with the U.S. over an invitation to take part in RimPac.
The Pentagon cited what it called strong evidence that China has deployed anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missile systems and electronic jammers to contested areas in the Spratly Island region of the South China Sea. It called on China to remove these systems.
"China's continued militarization of disputed features in the South China Sea only serve to raise tensions and destabilize the region," a Pentagon spokesman, Marine Lt. Col. Christopher Logan, said.
"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," he added. "China's behavior is inconsistent with the principles and purposes of the RimPac exercise."
The Pentagon also cited its objections to China's recent landing of bomber aircraft at Woody Island in the Paracel Island chain, north of the Spratlys.
China maintains that the South China Sea is its sovereign territory and that it is within its rights to build up defenses on the islands.
In his remarks at the State Department, Wang said he and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had discussed U.S. complaints about Chinese "militarization" of features in the South China Sea.
He said China is simply taking measures in self-defense, which have "nothing to do with militarization."
"Just like the U.S. has military presence in Hawaii and Guam," he said. "And China's deployment is at a much smaller scaler than the U.S. It is out of necessary defense purposes. We don't hope to see any exaggeration or hype-up of this matter."
Gregory B. Poling, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said disinviting China from RimPac is a "moderately big deal" because it reverses the Obama administration's emphasis on seeking closer military-to-military ties.
"At the same time, it doesn't really do anything to deter China in the South China Sea," Poling said. "So this is really more about venting our frustration and sending a signal than it is actually trying to change Chinese behavior."