Asia Pacific

In snub, U.S. won't send warships or senior officials to Chinese Navy's 70th anniversary celebrations

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The United States has decided not to send warships or senior military officers to celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy later this month, a snub by Washington even as U.S. allies Japan and South Korea are expected to send their own vessels and officials.

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn told The Japan Times on Friday that the U.S. Embassy in Beijing’s defense attache office would instead represent the United States at the fleet review and a symposium in the eastern port city of Qingdao from April 22 to 25.

“The U.S. government seeks a bilateral relationship that is results-oriented and focused on risk reduction,” Eastburn said. “The U.S. Navy will continue to pursue its primary goal of constructive, risk-reduction focused, discourse with the PLAN.”

Eastburn added that this would include continued engagement with the Chinese Navy “through established military-to-military dialogues, such as the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement working groups and Rules of Behavior discussions.”

China’s Defense Ministry announced last week that more than 60 countries will send naval delegations to participate in a multinational event on April 23. This will include a fleet review inspection featuring naval vessels from a number of countries such as South Korea, the Philippines and Japan.

Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwakya said last month that the Maritime Self-Defense Force would send a destroyer to visit from April 21 to 26, the first visit to the country by an MSDF vessel in seven years amid thawing Sino-Japanese ties. Tokyo is also considering participation by the MSDF chief of staff in the event.

Media reports have also said that France and Russia could even send aircraft carriers, though this has not been confirmed by Paris or Moscow.

The fleet review parade is expected to be larger than last year’s, the country’s largest since 1949. Last year’s parade was overseen by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Last April’s naval review in the South China Sea featured a total of 48 vessels and 76 planes, including China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, its Type 094A and 095 nuclear submarines, 052D guided missile destroyers and J-15 fighter jets.

The PLA Navy, which has faced growing international scrutiny over its moves in the South and East China seas in recent years, is using this year’s anniversary to reach out to its counterparts across the globe to present a friendlier image.

But the U.S. snub, apparently made out of concerns that China could have used the presence of American warships to bolster its international standing, is expected to put a damper on any propaganda victory by Beijing.

The decision comes amid a ramped-up pace of so-called freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) by U.S. warships and aircraft in and over the disputed South China Sea.

It also comes less than a year after the Pentagon announced last May that it was disinviting the Chinese Navy from taking part in Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) drills — the world’s largest naval exercise. That announcement specifically pointed to China’s militarization of islands in the South China Sea as a reason for the cancellation. A month earlier, China deployed the first advanced anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles to some of its fortified islets in the waterway’s Spratly chain.

Beijing has built up a series of military outposts in the South China Sea, which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year.

Washington and Beijing have frequently jousted over the militarization of the South China Sea, where China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines all have competing claims.

The U.S. does not maintain any claims there but says its FONOPs are conducted globally with the aim of promoting freedom of navigation.

Zhang Baohui, director of Lingnan University’s Center for Asian Pacific Studies in Hong Kong, said the decision not to send any warships or senior officials to the anniversary “is definitely a sign of tougher policies toward China” by the White House.

“In the past, it was the U.S. that tried to establish steady military-to-military relations between the two countries,” Zhang said. This “represented U.S. efforts to engage China and broaden mutual trust. Now, the Trump administration has targeted China as a strategic competitor and the policy is competition rather than engagement. In that context, trust-building falls by the wayside.”

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has used numerous policy documents, including the Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy and the White House’s 2017 National Security Strategy, to label China a “strategic competitor,” as part of its harder line in dealing with Beijing.

As for the anniversary decision impacting the decisions by Tokyo and Seoul to participate, Zhang said it was unlikely that the two would pull out.

“Japan has actually improved relations with China in substantial ways,” he said, noting the ongoing thaw between the two Asian giants under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

“Its foreign policies, under Abe and in the context of Tokyo’s concerns for Trump’s trade policies and alliance politics, have become more independent,” he said.

South Korea, with liberal President Moon Jae-in, also “wants good relations with Beijing,” he said.

“So I expect both will send warships to the event.”