photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Keith Devinney/Released, courtesy the Official U.S. Navy Page on Flickr
This began as a different post, one that contrasted our recently strengthened but still modest sanctions against Russia with the ludicrous spectacle of Chinese forces joining the U.S. Navy and its allies in Pacific combat exercises.
But this column took a different turn after Russian-backed thugs shot down a civilian airliner over eastern Ukraine, possibly with the direct connivance, and certainly with the enabling assistance, of the Russian military itself. Over the weekend, those same thugs busied themselves collecting the bodies of the 298 people they killed, along with sanitizing the crime scene and rummaging through personal belongings of the victims, while nations that legitimately consider themselves part of the civilized world of the 21st century fumed and fulminated, but did almost nothing about it.
It is hard to believe that our State Department did not at least issue an immediate advisory warning Americans against nonessential travel to Russia and cautioning against entering into new ventures that might result in assets being trapped there, should relations with Vladimir Putin's regime continue to worsen. We should be considering a cutoff of direct flights to and from Russia and anticipate that Russia would respond by making life difficult for Americans thence caught within its borders.
Yet only one American (one who held joint Netherlands citizenship) was aboard the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. More than 200 of the passengers and crew held citizenship in EU member states, and most of them were Dutch. Having already seen Russia grab Crimea and send its own citizens to lead and largely staff the so-called “separatist” movement in eastern Ukraine, members of the EU ought to be leading the charge to conform Russian behavior to international norms, especially considering that some of its member states that share a border with Russia.
It is not playing out that way. Modest as our own steps have been, including the Obama administration’s announcement last week of increased sanctions on several prominent Russian individuals and companies, our responses to Putin have been significantly tougher than Europe’s.
Even in the immediate aftermath of the downing of MH17, the German and Dutch responses have appeared to be much more concerned about preserving business ties with Russia than the threat Putin’s policies pose to them and their neighbors. The French, characteristically, appear to be concerned only about themselves, having still not altered their plans to sell two warships to Russia. It is hard to see that the Italians are concerned about anything at all.
Our sanctions can constrain Russian behavior at the margins, giving Putin incentives to keep his aggression mostly covert, or at least shielded in what he thinks is a patina of plausible deniability. But in the absence of similar or greater firmness from Europe, which has much more extensive commercial ties with Russia, it is doubtful that we can change the overall course of events.
Russia is not the only major power that is flexing its muscle in territorial aggression against its neighbors. It is, however, the only one currently being called to account for it. In a truly remarkable display of wishful diplomacy, last week China joined a U.S.-led military exercise called RIMPAC.
A total of 22 nations are participating in the biannual naval exercise, the largest in the world, which runs through August 1. This year, four ships from China are among the dozens involved. Since their inception in 1971, the RIMPAC drills have grown to include most Pacific nations.
China’s inclusion comes notwithstanding its maritime territorial disputes with multiple nations allied to the United States, including Japan and the Philippines, as well as disputes with its other neighbors, notably Vietnam. China is also the only direct threat to Taiwan, which the U.S. has pledged to defend. Not to mention that China routinely targets American military, government and commercial computers for online espionage.
Having China participate in joint drills with our Navy and our allies is the triumph of diplomatic hope over real-world practicality. China was invited to RIMPAC back in 2012, before the Chinese ratcheted up international maritime tensions by putting an oil drilling rig in waters off Vietnam, fencing the Philippines out of the Scarborough Shoal fishing grounds and declaring an air defense zone over the Senkaku Islands, which it disputes with Japan. But China’s claims have existed - and grown - for years. The Chinese naval forces could have been disinvited at any time between 2012 and today. The failure to do so was clearly a political decision rather than a military one. It is worth noting that Russia, which participated in the 2012 drills, was left out this year.
Since China’s invitation was allowed to stand, Chinese forces are training right now with the very navies they are being built to confront. Beyond this obvious foolishness, we also face the odd necessities of keeping the Chinese from falling under Japanese “command” during the exercises, because this is unacceptable to China, and of keeping them from participating in some advanced tactical drills, because this would be unacceptable to us.
The Chinese government approaches international law exactly the same way it uses domestic law: as a tool to be employed or ignored at will, depending on which is most conducive to the governing party’s current political goals. China refuses to work with neighboring states in the standard international framework to resolve disputes that could lead to war. This alone should be a disqualifier for training with those neighboring states, or with us, for the skills that would be needed should a war therefore ensue.
Do we want the Chinese to become skilled in peaceful tasks, such as search-and-rescue or disaster relief? Of course. If a “killer tomato” more dangerous than the inflatable target bearing its name in the RIMPAC exercises should appear, we would want Chinese naval marksmen to hit it.
But the level of international military cooperation involved in these drills is a privilege granted to nations that have earned the trust implicit in the invitation. The Chinese have not earned that trust. We should be treating them to what we are serving the Russians - a demonstration that aggression comes at a significant price and that, eventually, it will be resisted by force. And the Russians could clearly use a large helping of the same dish.