The United States has revoked an invitation to China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy to participate in a naval exercise, the Pentagon announced Wednesday, citing Beijing’s destabilizing moves in the South China Sea — including deploying weapons and other military equipment on contested islands and artificial reefs.
China announced in January that it had accepted a U.S. invitation to participate in the biennial Rim of the Pacific exercise, the world’s largest international maritime wargame.
The PLA Navy contributed five ships to the last one, in 2016, which included the militaries of 26 nations. China first participated in 2014, when it sent four ships along with an uninvited spy ship that skirted the exercise area.
“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,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Logan of the Marine Corps said in a statement.
The United States, he added, has “strong evidence” China has deployed anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles and electronic jamming systems on artificial islands in the Spratly Islands chain that Vietnam and Taiwan also claim as their territory. “China’s landing of bomber aircraft at Woody Island has also raised tensions.”
The United States maintains that “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 said.
The action comes as the United States and China are engaged in high-level talks aimed at averting a tit-for-tat trade war. Last week, negotiators reached a preliminary deal for China to buy more U.S. goods and to address other concerns. But U.S. officials have warned they could revive their threat to impose tariffs on $50 billion to $150 billion worth of Chinese goods if a final deal is not reached.
China is also playing a crucial diplomatic role in the run-up to a potential summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to dismantle its nuclear and missile programs.
There was no immediate response from the Chinese government about the decision to revoke its invitation to the naval exercise.
China had already based missiles on Woody Island and other military equipment on artificial islands it has built in the area before the revelation earlier this month that it had positioned anti-ship cruise missiles on three reefs in the Spratlys, a move first reported by CNBC. Those are seen as threats to U.S. aircraft carriers that operate in the region.
The United States has conducted two so-called freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea this year. The most recent was in March, when a U.S. Navy destroyer sailed near an artificial reef in the Spratlys that China seized from the Philippines more than 20 years ago.
The Chinese military condemned that operation as an “illegal provocation.”
Testifying to the Senate Armed Services Committee last month, the new top U.S. officer in the Pacific, Adm. Philip Davidson, said that “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States” and would be able to use its bases in the Spratlys “to extend its influence thousands of miles to the south.”
Also last month, Chinese leader Xi Jinping presided over a large-scale review of Chinese naval forces in the South China Sea.