Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta’s unusual offer to China's military to join a major U.S.-led naval exercise in the Pacific prompted several U.S. security officials to express fears privately that China will gain valuable war-fighting intelligence from the Rimpac, or Rim of the Pacific, exercise.
China's military will learn details on how the United States conducts coalition warfare, a strategic war-fighting capability. It also will learn valuable data on U.S. communications used in naval warfare maneuvers, said defense officials familiar with the war games.
Such cooperation also would violate legal restrictions on military exchanges with China that were imposed by Congress to prevent unrestricted cooperation with Beijing from enhancing Chinese war-fighting.
Rim of the Pacific is “the world’s largest international maritime exercise,” Mr. Panetta said.
The most recent exercises were held from June into August and included forces from 22 nations. About 25,000 troops, 40 ships, six submarines and more than 200 aircraft participated.
If China takes part, Chinese military intelligence would be given access to sensitive information on the planning for the exercise and the communications and procedures used in maneuvering large groups of forces from different nations. China could use the information in a future conflict, considering its growing cyberwarfare capabilities.
A defense official said the offer for China to join the exercise grew out of the visit to China in June by Adm. Samuel J. Locklear, head of the U.S. Pacific Command. Adm. Locklear was asked about Rimpac and told Chinese military leaders that participation in the exercise was prohibited by a 2000 law restricting Chinese military exchanges.
A provision of the 2000 National Defense Authorization Act prohibits any contacts with the People’s Liberation of Army that pose a national security risk, including joint war-fighting capabilities, a key element of the international war games.
To circumvent the restriction, the Pentagon over the past few months had lawyers review the prohibition. They told Mr. Panetta he could authorize the Chinese military participation by asserting it would not undermine U.S. security.
However, Pentagon officials are concerned that Congress, especially House Republicans, will step in and oppose or block the Chinese warship involvement.
The 2000 law prohibits all “inappropriate exposure” for Chinese military visitors to 12 categories of information, including force projection and nuclear operations; advanced joint warfare know-how; surveillance and reconnaissance operations; and military space operations.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on government operations, said in an interview that inviting China to Rimpac is a bad idea and would be like inviting Iranian gunboats to join maneuvers in the Persian Gulf to prevent collisions.
“Is this what pivot to the Pacific means?” The California Republican asked of the U.S. effort to bolster forces in the Pacific against China’s high-tech weaponry. “I thought the pivot was meant to make us stronger, not weaker.”
Mr. Rohrabacher also said such cooperation is not just impractical, but illegal.