The show of force mounted this week off the Korean Peninsula by the United States and South Korea was the biggest in decades and was intended to warn North Korea not to take aggressive action against the South.
China, however, objected to the military exercises and called for “restraint” by all parties.
In deference to Chinese sensitivities, the United States decided not to deploy the aircraft carrier George Washington in the Yellow Sea. Instead, activities this week of the nuclear-powered carrier and 20-odd ships and submarines, plus 200 aircraft, were confined to the east of the peninsula.
But China clearly does not think that is enough restraint.
The official Xinhua news agency, in reporting the joint American-Korean exercises, said “many analysts expressed concern that the war games . . . could heighten tension, thus making dialogues more difficult.”
The sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan in March, allegedly by a North Korean torpedo, has strengthened the alliance between Seoul and Washington.
Last week, the two countries held a historic 2-plus-2 meeting, involving the foreign and defense ministers of each country, in which they affirmed the strength of the alliance.
They exhorted North Korea, in language reminiscent of the Bush presidency, to abandon its nuclear weapons programs completely and verifiably.
In fact, relations between Seoul and Washington have become much closer in recent months. At the nuclear security summit in April, U.S. President Barack Obama disclosed that South Korean Lee Myung Bak had agreed to host the second such summit in 2012.
This reflected the close working relationship between the two men and constituted an attempt by the U.S. to raise the profile of South Korea, weeks after the sinking of the Cheonan — even before a joint investigation group had identified North Korea as the culprit.
The Cheonan incident has also strengthened the Japan-American military alliance. After months of discord over the relocation of the Futenma military base in Okinawa, Japan backed down, citing the Cheonan sinking as proof of a need for placing the alliance on “a solid relationship of mutual trust.” In fact, for the first time, Japanese officers are observing the joint U.S.-Korean naval exercises, an demonstration of Tokyo’s desire for cooperation with Washington and Seoul against the threat from Pyongyang.
While the U.S. is, on the surface, working with its Asian partners to deter North Korea, Washington is also making use of the current situation to reassert its presence in Asia, despite a rising China and a widespread perception of American decline.
Not only is the U.S. taking part in military drills off eastern China, it is also asserting its interests in the South China Sea, which Beijing has identified as its own “core interest.”
After U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Seoul for the 2-plus-2 meeting, she went on to Hanoi for a meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum, where she declared that American national interest was involved in the resolution of disputes in the South China Sea.
The disputes pit China against much smaller countries in Southeast Asia, such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, none of which can adequately stand up to China on its own.
By declaring an American interest, Clinton was, in effect, weighing in on the side of the smaller countries vis-a-vis China.
Not surprisingly, Beijing immediately rejected this attempt to “internationalize” the South China Sea issue. The Global Times, sister newspaper of the People’s Daily, on Monday carried an article headlined “American shadow over South China Sea” in which it warned Southeast Asian countries that “regional stability will be difficult to maintain” if they “allow themselves to be controlled” by the U.S.
Revealing the mailed fist beneath the velvet globe, Global Times declared: “Southeast Asian countries need to understand any attempt to maximize gains by playing a balancing game between China and the U.S. is risky. . . . China will never waive its right to protect its core interest with military means.”
Given such thinking in Beijing, it is understandable that the countries of Southeast Asia do not want to be abandoned to the tender mercies of their giant neighbor.
But the countries of Southeast Asia, like those in Northeast Asia, are also eager to strengthen their economic ties with China, which has become the engine of growth for the region.
Thus they are torn between a desire for U.S.-guaranteed security and China-linked prosperity. And, of course, the U.S. itself is in an ambiguous situation.
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator.