The U.S. was has been "reassessing" the invitation for Chinese warships to participate in the RIMPAC 2016 naval exercises off Hawaii this summer in light of China's aggressive actions in the South China Sea, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said.
The biannual RIMPAC, or Rim of the Pacific, is an international training exercise hosted by the U.S. and set to take place in June and July.
China's invitation was likely to be the topic of discussions next week on the sidelines of the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit on cooperation against nuclear proliferation and the smuggling of materials for dirty bombs that will be attended by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
China's Foreign Ministry confirmed Wednesday that Xi will join representatives of 40 other countries at the three-day summit beginning March 31, China's Xinhua news agency said. The summit will take place as the U.S is pressing China to rein in the nuclear ambitions of North Korea, which recently claimed to have miniaturized a nuclear warhead to fit atop an intercontinental ballistic missile.
In testimony to the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Carter said, "We are constantly reassessing" China's invitation to RIMPAC. In 2014, China for the first time participated in RIMPAC exercises involving 23 counties, about 50 ships, six submarines and more than 25,000 troops.
The Chinese currently "have an invitation for RIMPAC and we will continue to review that," Carter said. "Our strategy in the Asia-Pacific is not to exclude anyone, but to keep the security architecture going there, in which everyone participates.
"China is, however, self-isolating" through its actions in building artificial islands for military airfields in the South China Sea that have raised concerns among regional allies, and "that's why all these partners are coming to us," Carter said.
The secretary was responding to questions from Rep. Mark Takai, a Hawaii Democrat, who urged Carter to disinvite China from RIMPAC, the world's largest naval exercise.
U.S. Navy officials recently pointed to Chinese military action in the South China Sea at Scarborough Shoal, which lies within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, a U.S. security treaty ally.
"Should we reward China for this aggressive behavior by including them in an event meant for allies and partners?" Takai asked during the hearing. "China's behavior is the polar opposite of U.S. objectives in the region" and the Chinese should be excluded from RIMPAC, the lawmaker said.
Carter responded, "We're constantly evaluating our relationship with China and China's behavior, including the South China Sea, where I emphasize we have very serious concerns about their aggressive militarization there."
In confirming last month that China would attend RIMPAC, Wu Qian, a spokesman for China's defense ministry, said, "Joining these military exercises will be beneficial to improving the Chinese navy's ability to contend with non-traditional security threats."
However, Wu added, "Needless to say, military relations between China and the U.S. have some difficulties and obstacles."
The drumbeat in China's official media has been that the so-called U.S. "Pacific pivot" -- the rebalance of U.S. forces to the Asia-Pacific region -- is designed to deny China's rightful status as a world power.
Carter again rejected the charge Wednesday in an address to the Corps of Cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
"China is rising, which is fine, but China is behaving aggressively, which is not," he said. The Asia-Pacific was "the most consequential region for America's future," and it "has generally been an area of peace and stability," primarily because of the U.S. presence. "That's what we aim to keep going. It's not about keeping China down," he said.
Last May, Sens. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and the ranking Democrat on the panel, sent a letter to Carter recommending that China be disinvited from RIMPAC 2016 because of China's "bad behavior."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com.