Would someone please provide the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) spokesman with a map! Over the last few months, since it was rumored, then denied, and then confirmed that the George Washington aircraft carrier would be involved in naval “show of force” maneuvers off the west coast of South Korea, PLA interlocutors have been proclaiming they “resolutely oppose any foreign military vessel and aircraft conducting activities in the Yellow Sea and China’s coastal waters that undermine China’s security interests.”

China’s coastal waters? While the George Washington’s Yellow Sea area of operations has not yet been delineated, one assumes that it will operate in or adjacent to South Korean waters, somewhere in the general vicinity of the sinking of the South Korean Navy’s Cheonan corvette by a North Korean torpedo. This will place it about 195 km away from the closest Chinese landmass on the Shandong Peninsula and 280 km from the closest city of any significance, Dalian. How does this undermine China’s security interests?

These facts of geography notwithstanding, we have PLA commentators warning of a possible “collision” between U.S./South Korean and Chinese naval ships, while another threatens “If someone harms me, I must harm them.” Since when is operating in or near South Korean coastal waters — the Yellow Sea touches the North and South Korean as well as the Chinese coast — threaten China or do it harm?

Does the PLA now claim the South Korean port of Incheon as part of its coastal waters? Do U.S. (or South Korean) ships have to get Chinese permission to sail in international waters significantly closer to the Korean mainland than to China? This is, of course, preposterous on the face of it.

The great irony is that it appears the U.S. initially had no plans of sending the George Washington into the Yellow Sea. In fact, Washington and Seoul were hoping that no major show of force would have been necessary at all, which is why they postponed plans for their naval maneuvers in lieu of first taking North Korea to the United Nations Security Council, the “responsible” way to send a message.

Unfortunately, it was Beijing’s actions at the UNSC — where it played Pyongyang’s defense attorney despite an earlier pledge by Premier Wen Jiabao to scrutinize the results of the international investigation of the Cheonan attack in an “objective and fair manner” and “not protect anyone regarding the review” — that made the exercises necessary, to counteract what Pyongyang was proclaiming to be its “great diplomatic victory” at the U.N.

Even after China’s actions at the UNSC, the USN’s preference was to limit the George Washington’s involvement to the initial joint exercise off the east coast of South Korea, as part of a significant show of force to underscore to Pyongyang that South Korean and U.S. tolerance had its limits, and that future acts of aggression would not be tolerated.

Then came Chinese ultimatums warning the USN to stay out of its “coastal — in truth, international — waters, followed by complaints from numerous friends and allies (especially in South Korea and Japan) bemoaning the “fact” that the U.S. seemed to be kowtowing to Chinese demands. This made a visit by the George Washington to the Yellow Sea essential, if the U.S. Navy, not to mention the time-honored principle of freedom of the seas, was to maintain any credibility in East Asia.

U.S. spokesmen have repeatedly asserted that the naval activity was not designed with China in mind; it was, and is, about sending North Korea a message. However, the PLA, by its outrageous warnings and pronouncements, has made it about China as well. The question is, why?

Those inclined to do mirror imaging posit that the PLA is just trying to create or magnify an enemy in order to increase its share of the Chinese defense budget or to keep civilians who might otherwise be “soft on defense” on the defensive themselves. Perhaps! But I see another motive as well.

One clear result of the PLA accusations has been a clear rise in anti-American nationalistic feelings. One only needs to read the China Daily or Global Times to see daily accusations of American insults and insensitivities to Chinese concerns. Could it be that Chinese fascination, especially among the youth, for President Barack Obama and the American process of choosing its leaders, is seen as particularly threatening to the PLA and to the civilian leadership that is preparing for its own 2012 leadership “elections”?

We saw a similar phenomenon 12 years ago when, during the similarly popular administration of President Bill Clinton, the PLA sent briefing teams out to China’s campuses in the wake of the accidental NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, asserting that the accident was a deliberate attack and drumming up anti-U.S. feelings that resulted in the U.S. Embassy being stoned and consulates attacked. Sounds like deja vu all over again.

Had the PLA wanted assurances that the South Korean/U.S. naval exercises were not aimed at or threatening to China, vehicles exist to discuss this, including under the U.S.-Chinese Military Maritime Safety Agreement consultative mechanism. Of course, that would have required the PLA to actually sit down and talk to the U.S. military, something it seems increasingly reluctant to do. Who knows, maybe if they resumed currently stalled military- to-military discussions, the U.S. Navy could have provided them some maps delineating everyone’s coastal waters.

Ralph Cossa is president of Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based policy research institute. A slightly different version of this article appeared in PacNet Newsletter.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.