The US Navy announced on May 29 that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been invited to attend the 2018 Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC 2018). “All 26 nations that participated in RIMPAC 2016 have been invited to return for RIMPAC 2018,” a spokesman for the US Third Fleet said. Held every two years by the US Pacific Fleet, RIMPAC is the world’s largest multinational maritime exercise that began in 1971. Despite controversy over China’s decision to deploy a spy ship to monitor the exercises in 2014—the year it made its debut in the exercise—the Pentagon permitted China to be invited to the recently concluded planning conference for the exercise held in San Diego. Two additional planning conferences are scheduled before the exercise is to take place next summer. While the Pentagon’s decision to invite the PLAN follows congressionally-mandated guidelines governing military-to-military and naval-to-naval engagements with China, its invitation to 2018 raises the question of whether or not the Trump administration will also invite Taiwan to participate in 2018 RIMPAC.
Taiwan has sought to join RIMPAC since as early as 1998—when China began sending observers to the exercise—but its efforts have been met with resistance largely due to concerns in Washington over how Beijing will react. The PLAN was not invited to participate in the exercise until 2014. In recent years, Congressional support for Taiwan’s participation in RIMPAC has grown: specifically, the House of Representatives has sought to pressure the executive branch to invite Taiwan. In the end, these measures have proven unsuccessful as the legislative process tempered any prescriptive provisions on the matter.
Indeed, the US House of Representatives passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2015, stating unequivocally:
The Secretary of Defense shall invite the military forces of Taiwan to participate in any maritime exercise known as the Rim of the Pacific Exercise if the Secretary has invited the military forces of the People’s Republic of China to participate in such maritime exercise.
The Senate version of the amendments included no such provision. While the House ultimately rescinded the language requiring the Secretary of Defense to invite Taiwan to RIMPAC, the 2017 NDAA that former President Barack Obama signed into law on December 23, 2016 broadly sanctions military exchanges with Taiwan (US Public Law No: 114-328). The Act defines exchanges as “an activity, exercise, event, or observation opportunity between members of the Armed Forces and officials of the Department of Defense, on the one hand, and armed forces personnel and officials of Taiwan, on the other hand.” Although not prescriptive, the NDAA acknowledges that the Secretary of Defense has the authority to invite Taiwan to RIMPAC.
In spite of the NDAA’s measured language, the PRC Foreign Ministry, in characteristic fashion and in an attempt to contain US policy towards Taiwan, criticized the action for expanding Taiwan’s international space. Three days after the NDAA was signed into law, in reference to the Taiwan-related provision, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying stated: “Although the Taiwan-related content in the US Act has no legal binding force, it still severely violates the three joint communiqués and interferes in China’s domestic affairs. China will by no means accept this. We urge the US side to honor its commitment on the Taiwan question, put an end to military exchanges with and arms sales to Taiwan and avoid undermining China-US relations or cross-Straits peace and stability.”
Setting aside the problems with allowing Beijing to dictate what the United States can and cannot do under the US “One-China” policy, inviting Taiwan to participate in RIMPAC would not only be consistent with the sense of Congress that “[t]he Secretary of Defense should carry out a program of exchanges of senior military officers and senior officials between the United States and Taiwan designed to improve military to military relations between the United States and Taiwan,” but also the Taiwan Relations Act.
By inviting the PLAN to 2018 RIMPAC, the Trump administration has apparently decided that China’s aggressive actions in territorial disputes do not yet rise to the level of warranting the disinviting of the PLAN from the exercise—as some lawmakers and former senior officials have recommended. While the United States should consider cost imposition strategy to get China to change its provocative behavior, shifting that cost onto Taiwan’s shoulders by withholding an invitation cannot be the solution. It is entirely within the United States’ right to invite whomever it pleases to participate in RIMPAC, and the United States should invite Taiwan to RIMPAC on its own merits, such as Taiwan’s potential contribution to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. For instance, after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, Taiwan provided over US$252 million in combined aid.
Participating in the exercises would serve both important military and political purposes for Taiwan. The training that Taiwan’s military would receive from exposure and coordination with militaries from across the world would be invaluable not only for the officers’ experiences, but also for military morale, which would likely be boosted simply by participating in this prestigious exercise. Furthermore, it would send a clear signal to Beijing as well as to US allies and partners that, while United States seeks to work with China where it can, it will stand by its alliances and partnerships. As the NDAA clearly points out, the Secretary of Defense has the authority to invite Taiwan to RIMPAC. The decision to exercise that authority is a matter of political will.
The main point: The Pentagon’s decision to invite the PLAN follows congressionally-mandated guidelines governing military-to-military and naval-to-naval engagements with China. Likewise, the 2017 NDAA broadly sanctions military exchanges with Taiwan—and, as the NDAA points out, the Secretary of Defense has the authority to invite Taiwan to RIMPAC.