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 strain in the U.S.-China relationship.
The U.S. 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 serve to raise tensions and destabilize the region," Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. 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 tensions.
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.