The inaugural Marine Corps Forces Symposium is set to begin in Hawaii on Monday, and aims to lay the groundwork for integrating amphibious operations with foreign countries. Of the 23 nations that will be attending, more than half will be from Asia, including some that are embroiled in ongoing territorial disputes with China, like Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
Planning documents obtained by Reuters reveal the Pentagon’s stance that China should “not be invited” because it is a “competitor” to the US and some of the other attending nations.
According to US defense officials, China’s exclusion from the conference is not unusual. However, it comes as Washington steps up its criticism of Beijing, alleging that China’s reclamation efforts in the Spratlys archipelago are aimed at bolstering its sovereignty claims over the hotly disputed South China Sea.
China, along with a number of regional US allies like Vietnam and the Philippines, have overlapping claims to the territory which sees $5 trillion in shipping each year. While the US is not a party to the dispute itself, Washington is concerned about China’s growing influence in the region.
Beijing has maintained that its construction efforts in the archipelago — where it has built up artificial landmasses US military officials have dubbed the “great wall of sand” — will serve to provide civilian services and search and rescue facilities.
Meanwhile, Washington has stepped up its efforts to counter Beijing’s influence. US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Tuesday that the Pentagon is considering expanding military patrols around the Spratlys. US Marines are the largest amphibious force in Asia, with some 80,000 personnel deployed in the region. Most are based on Japan’s Okinawa island.
In a move that could be interpreted as a warning to Beijing, the US has also conducted joint military exercises with the Philippines. Speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, a consultant to the US military has said that such bilateral exercises with Asian allies have not been effective, as they have done little more than show off the US Marines.
As such, a key goal of the Leadership Symposium will be to take the first steps in establishing multilateral amphibious exercises. According to a US Marine Corps spokesman, the conference’s agenda will include amphibious assault tactics, such as ship-to-shore assaults, as well as a demonstration of shore landing tactics.
Commenting on the exclusion, China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that any country has the right to invite who it wants to a meeting or event, as long as regional peace and security are maintained.
"The militaries of China and the United States have normal exchanges and cooperation on various levels," she added.
China took part in the US-led Rim of the Pacific naval exercises last year with more than 20 countries, however its participation was limited to humanitarian relief and rescue operations.