SINGAPORE — The United States and South Korea announced last week that they would hold the next phase of their joint naval exercises early in September in the Yellow Sea, despite repeated objections from China.
The outcome of this test of strength between Washington and Beijing will have repercussions not only on stability and the balance of power in Northeast Asia, but also in Southeast Asia.
The U.S. military in South Korea on Aug. 20 said that the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington was not scheduled to take part in the forthcoming anti-submarine drill in international waters in the Yellow Sea, between the Korean Peninsula and China.
However, a Pentagon spokesman said earlier that the carrier and its escorts would be sent into the Yellow Sea in a future phase of the joint training with South Korea. He added that the exercises were intended to deter the North from further attacks like the one in the Yellow Sea in March by a North Korean submarine that sank a South Korean frigate, the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors.
For years, American carriers and other warships have steamed into the Yellow Sea and exercised with South Korea, one of five U.S. allies in the western Pacific. The George Washington, which is based at Yokosuka, was last in the Yellow Sea in late 2009.
But since the Cheonan sinking and planning for the current U.S.-South Korean exercises began, China has raised a chorus of objections. They have been led and fanned by the military establishment.
This is a cause for regional concern because it suggests that key Chinese foreign and defense policies are now being shaped by military officers rather than civilians.
The tone was set by Gen. Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the armed forces general staff. He said on July 2 that the Yellow Sea was very close to China and thus Beijing strongly opposed foreign military exercises there.
Yet the 1982 United Nations law of the sea treaty, which China has ratified, allows such operations. It bans military maneuvers in territorial waters out to 22 km from the shore without permission from the coastal state.
But there is no such ban in the wider Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) out as far as 370 km from the coast. China says there should be and has been challenging the rights of U.S. military ships and aircraft in recent years.
At the annual Shangri-La security conference in Singapore in June, Gen. Ma declared that one of the major obstacles in China-U.S. military relations was the “high-intensity surveillance” in China’s EEZ by U.S. warships and planes in the South China Sea and East China Sea.
In March, senior U.S. officials were told by Chinese counterparts that the South China Sea was a “core” sovereignty interest to be defended at all costs, like Tibet and Taiwan. Beijing’s claim to control up to 80 percent of the South China Sea conflicts with more limited claims by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
On July 12, the official Xinhua news agency quoted an unnamed researcher with the Chinese Navy’s military academy as saying that the Yellow Sea was “pivotal to China’s core interests, given that it is related not only to the extension of the country’s maritime rights but also to its maritime security.”
The researcher noted that if a U.S. aircraft carrier was allowed into the Yellow Sea it could strike at Beijing and other strategic targets deep inside China.
Writing in the Aug. 12 edition of Liberation Army Daily, the main mouthpiece of the Chinese armed forces, Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, deputy secretary general of the Academy of Military Sciences, said that “a country needs respect, and a military also needs respect.” He accused the U.S. of “pushing its security boundary to the doorstep of others — the Yellow Sea, South China Sea and so on,” adding that if this continued China would have to “hurt” America in return.
The U.S. needs China’s cooperation in dealing with nuclear-armed North Korea and other pressing international issues. So Washington has been cautious in its response when faced with the barrage of objections from China at the prospect of U.S.-South Korean maneuvers in the Yellow Sea, particularly if they involve a giant aircraft carrier.
In the first set of exercises in late July, the carrier was sent to waters east of Korea, not to the Yellow Sea in the west. U.S. policymakers are trying to steer a fine line between provoking China, and defending a key U.S. national security interest in freedom of navigation and Asian alliances.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials are playing for time in the hope that nationalistic fervor in China will cool and more moderate views will take hold. Instead of going to the Yellow Sea, the carrier George Washington was sent to the South China Sea to exercise with Vietnam and then to dock in Singapore so that its crew could take some shore leave.
However, if America fails to send the carrier into the Yellow Sea with South Korea it will embolden hardliners in China and set a precedent that will be widely interpreted in the region as a sign of U.S. weakness. Carrier-led naval deployments in waters near China will become more difficult, Chinese hawks will be tempted to keep expanding their list of core sovereignty interests, and Southeast Asian states will wonder whether the U.S. is still prepared to defend freedom of navigation in the South China Sea — a far more important highway for international maritime trade and movement of naval and air power than the Yellow Sea.
Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.