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International relations

Pacific snub signals US break from China engagement policy

Beijing feared to further ease economic pressure on North Korea

Chinese and U.S. flags fly aboard a Chinese naval vessel that participated in the Rimpac military exercises in Honolulu in 2016.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON/BEIJING -- The U.S. decision to disinvite China from multilateral naval exercises this summer underscores President Donald Trump's departure from the more conciliatory policy of his predecessor. Along with Trump's decision on Thursday to cancel his upcoming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which Trump had said Chinese President Xi Jinping may have tried to influence, the chain of events could mean a hardening of Washington's stance on Beijing.

"China's continued militarization of disputed features in the South China Sea" only serves to "raise tensions and destabilize the region," said Lt. Col. Chris Logan, a U.S. Department of Defense spokesman, in a Wednesday statement explaining Beijing's exclusion from the American-hosted Rim of the Pacific exercises, or Rimpac.

Logan said the Pentagon has "strong evidence" that China has deployed anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles in the Spratly Islands, which are also subject to claims by the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. Beijing recently landed bombers in the disputed Paracel Islands as well.

Started in 1971, Rimpac is typically held every other year, bringing together naval forces from 20-plus countries. This year's drills are scheduled for June 27 through Aug. 2.

China first joined the exercises in 2014 at the invitation of then-President Barack Obama in what was seen as a sign of the administration's policy of engagement with Beijing. Washington hoped to encourage transparency in the Chinese military and improve its understanding of international rules.

Xi had made clear in a meeting with Trump last July that Beijing planned to participate again this year. But the Trump administration, which groups China with Russia as "revisionist" powers seeking to reshape the global order, likely worried that welcoming Beijing back to Rimpac would send the wrong message to the rest of the international community.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi criticized the snub as "very unconstructive" and a decision "taken lightly" in a Wednesday joint news conference with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It is "unhelpful to mutual understanding," Wang said.

Beijing had held up its participation in Rimpac as a symbol of coexistence between the two powers. China's Ministry of National Defense said in 2014 that it hoped to promote a new model of military relations. To Beijing, this meant avoiding conflict, building trust and not interfering with Chinese national interests.

Some fear that the disinvitation may signal the beginning of the end for international cooperation centering on the U.S. and China. Speculation is swirling that Beijing could join with Moscow and others to establish a rival framework for multilateral exercises.

This development adds to an increasingly complex tug of war between China and the U.S., encompassing trade as well as security issues. Trump has dangled the possibility of easing crippling sanctions on Chinese telecommunications equipment maker ZTE as a bargaining chip as he looks to reduce the bilateral trade imbalance. Xi, having lost face with the withdrawn Rimpac invitation, could retaliate by declining to cooperate with the U.S.-led pressure campaign against North Korea.

Wang said on Wednesday that he had urged the Americans to go ahead with an anticipated summit between Trump and Kim. "I told our U.S. colleagues that if you want to solve the problem, now is the time," he said.

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