Washington: The Pentagon has pulled its invitation for China to join maritime exercises in the Pacific because of Beijing's "continued militarization" of the South China Sea, an official said Wednesday, in the latest sign of US-China strains.
The US Navy organizes a biennial exercise called "Rim of the Pacific" (RIMPAC) in which personnel from more than two dozen countries train together and work on seamanship across the vast region.
But the United States now thinks China's behavior in the South China Sea runs counter to the spirit of the drills.
"China's continued militarization of disputed features in the South China Sea only serves to raise tensions and destabilize the region," Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Chris Logan said.
"We have disinvited the PLA Navy from the 2018 Rim of the Pacific Exercise. China's behavior is inconsistent with the principles and purposes of the RIMPAC exercise."
He said the Pentagon has strong evidence that China has deployed anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems and electronic jammers to "contested features" in the Spratly Islands region of the South China Sea.
"While China has maintained that the construction of the islands is to ensure safety at sea, navigation assistance, search and rescue, fisheries protection and other non-military functions, the placement of these weapon systems is only for military use," Logan said, adding that the landing of a Chinese bomber on Woody Island had only exacerbated strains.
The decision to pull China's invitation comes amid new tensions between Washington and Beijing.
President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he was not satisfied with talks aimed at averting a trade war with China.
And on Tuesday, he suggested that Chinese President Xi Jinping might have played a role in North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's recent threats to withdraw from a planned summit with the US.
'Freedom Of Navigation'
China claims most of the South China Sea -- believed to hold vast oil and gas deposits and through which $5 trillion in trade passes annually -- and has built up islands and military installations across the region.
Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei also have claims in the sea.
The US Navy periodically conducts "freedom of navigation" operations in which naval vessels sail close to the Chinese-claimed militarized islets.
Logan said the Pentagon had called on China to remove its military installations "immediately" and to "reverse course" on its militarization of the sea.
Given China's growing military confidence and its heavy investment in the South China Sea, such a move is highly unlikely.
According to the Navy, this year's RIMPAC was originally slated to include more than 1,000 personnel from 27 countries.
An invitation to the exercises, which are held in and around the Hawaiian Islands and Southern California, carries some political weight as it offers legitimacy and acceptance to those military forces taking part.
Thailand was disinvited in 2016 following a coup.
RIMPAC began in 1971 and was held annually until 1974, when it switched to every two years due to its large scale. The founding nations are the United States, Australia and Canada.
China has participated twice previously, in 2014 and 2016.
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