With just weeks to go until the start of the world's largest maritime exercise, the Navy is still open to having China participate, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said Monday.
Speaking at a Washington, D.C. conference hosted by the Center for a New American Security, Richardson said the invitation to the 2016 Rim of the Pacific exercise, which begins June 26 and runs through August, was just one way that the Navy was inviting collaboration with China despite ramped-up tensions surrounding territorial claims in the South China Sea.
"The invitation is still there for the Chinese to participate in RIMPAC and these are the sorts of things that sort of bring us all together in positive, constructive ways," he said. "My counterparts around the world talk about it's our responsibility to increase decision space for our leadership, and I think that these sorts of exercises do that."
Richardson added that he is hoping in the next month to have a face-to-face meeting with his Chinese counterpart, commander of the People's Liberation Army Navy Wu Shengli.
"I've had a number of conversations with him already," Richardson said. "I look forward to meeting him in person. And these personal relationships are extremely important, particularly if something should happen and we need to talk to each other on short notice, de-escalation … we keep things on an even keel."
The importance of that sort of communication is cast in relief as the Navy boosts its presence in and around the South China Sea. Just days ago, the Navy moved a second aircraft carrier battle group into the Western Pacific. As of June 18, aircraft carriers John C. Stennis and Ronald Reagan and their strike groups are conducting rare training: dual-carrier flight operations in the Philippine Sea.
The Navy also last week deployed a squadron of EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft to the Philippines in support of "routine operations that enhance regional maritime domain awareness and assure access to the air and maritime domains in accordance with international law" according to officials.
Richardson acknowledged that the bulked-up Navy presence was a show of strength with a not-so-subtle message.
"I think both here and in the Mediterranean, it's a signal to everyone in the region that we're here and we're committed to be there for our allies to reassure them, and for anyone who wants to destabilize that region, there's a deterrent message there as well," he said.
Richardson made clear that China was such a destabilizing force, saying its long-range strike capabilities and unpredictable actions demanded an American response.
The capabilities of these long-range weapons and Chinese intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets are "extended by the land reclamation and militarization of those things, so that type of technology gets extended out potentially by virtue of those sorts of measures really raising a lot of questions, destabilizing that region, just because there's not a clear understanding of what the intentions are there," Richardson said. "So I would say that combination of technologies to give you that suite of capabilities is really one of the pressing concerns right now."
Tensions over territorial counter-claims in the South China Sea may take another turn when a U.N. arbitration court delivers a ruling regarding Chinese plans to build on the Scarborough Shoal, a territory within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines and claimed by that country. That ruling is expected in early July.
"I think it's a great opportunity; we'll just have to see it unfold," Richardson said of the arbitration, though he declined to speculate about the outcome. "The only thing I can say about my predictions is I've got them about 100 percent wrong. I won't try to extend that record here."