On his first trip to China since taking office, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel found himself in the middle of a spat that would not have been out of place in Mean Girls, a movie about social cliques in high school.
For the first time, China is set to host the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) a meeting every two years of countries that border the Pacific Ocean. The WPNS, as it is known in naval circles, counts among its members the US, Australia, Chile, Canada and a number of Asian countries, including China and Japan.
Often at such meetings, the host country organizes an international fleet review, at which the visiting countries can parade their ships and show off some fancy hardware. It can be an eye-popping display of warships, destroyers and guided-missile cruisers. In 2008, when South Korea hosted the symposium, the US sent the aircraft carrier George Washington, the guided-missile cruiser Cowpens and the destroyer John McCain to take part.
For this year’s fleet review, China, which is hosting the event in Qingdao, invited all the countries in the symposium to take part — except Japan.
“It is so totally high school,” a senior US defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly. “We were like, ‘Really? You’re going to do that?’”
So on the eve of Hagel’s trip, which includes a scheduled visit to Qingdao, Pentagon officials announced that if Japan could not take part in the review, then neither would the US. The US is to attend the meeting, the Pentagon said, but no US ships will sail in the fleet review.
“As of this moment, there is no intent to send a US ship to participate,” a Pentagon official said in a carefully worded statement. “WPNS is an important multilateral venue that promotes collaboration among navies in an inclusive, cooperative and constructive forum.”
The US has been navigating disputes between Japan and China for decades, but in recent months, things seem to be coming to a boil.
Late last year, China set off a trans-Pacific uproar after it declared that an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) gave it the right to identify and possibly take military action against aircraft near the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyutais (釣魚台) in Taiwan. Japan controls and administers the islands, but both Taiwan and China claim them.
Japan refused to recognize China’s claim, and the US has been defying China’s ADIZ move ever since by sending military planes into the zone unannounced.
In February, US Navy Captain James Fanell, director of intelligence and information operations with the US Pacific Fleet, said China was training its forces to be capable of carrying out a “short, sharp” war with Japan in the East China Sea. Other US officials noted with increasing concern the buildup of China’s military and what they called a lack of transparency among its leaders.
Into all this arrived Hagel, first in Qingdao, the headquarters of one of China’s three naval fleets. Hagel visited the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s aircraft carrier, the first foreign visitor that China has allowed aboard, a US defense official said. Qingdao is the place the Chinese showed to Hagel’s predecessor, Leon Panetta, two years ago.