Military exercises prepare militaries for the possibility of open conflict with enemies. More often, they are intended to deter conflict by warning adversaries that a country and its allies are prepared for battle and that aggression will be countered. A third message is sent to a different audience — allies, partners and the public. It is a reminder that a country takes its security responsibilities seriously and is ready to work alone or with allies to defend national interests.

All those messages are important and help us understand the recent flurry of military exercises in Northeast Asia. In March this year, North Korea sunk a South Korean Navy corvette, resulting in the loss of 47 lives. Last month, a North Korean artillery barrage on the island of Yeonpyeong claimed four lives, two of them civilians, and destroyed dozens of homes. It was the first North Korean strike on civilian territory in the South since the end of the Korean War. These were preceded by nuclear tests and missile tests.

South Korea and other concerned nations have responded with restraint. No overt military actions have been taken — despite growing demands by the South Korean public for Seoul to do so. Instead, the government of South Korean President Lee Myung Bak has pressed for a diplomatic solution to North Korean recklessness and belligerence. At the same time, Seoul has worked to signal Pyongyang that the provocations must stop.

In July, South Korea and the United States held military exercises that involved 20 ships, 100 aircraft and over 8,000 personnel. Four days after the Yeonpyeong shelling, the two allies mobilized still more forces for yet more exercises, this time the largest joint naval exercise in decades off the Korean Peninsula’s west coast. Those drills were followed by Keen Sword, the largest ever Japan-U.S. joint field exercises, which included 34,000 Self-Defense Forces personnel, 40 vessels and 250 aircraft, along with 10,000 U.S. personnel, 20 ships and 150 aircraft. In fact, Keen Sword is the 10th such round of exercises since 1986; Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa insisted that “we are not targeting a specific country.”

South Korea sent observers to join the Japan-U.S. drill, for the first time, just as Maritime Self-Defense Force personnel observed the July U.S.-South Korea drills. This trilateral military cooperation and coordination was matched on the diplomatic front when Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara joined his South Korean counterpart Kim Sung Hwan in Washington. There they, along with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, condemned North Korean behavior and demanded that Pyongyang comply with commitments it had made in the six-party talks.

North Korea has responded with its usual bluster, denouncing the moves as preludes to war while failing to see a connection between its murderous actions and the responses they invite. That blindness is to be expected; North Korea cannot afford to be ignored, and its leadership has calculated that South Korea will be deterred from responding with force.

What is surprising is China’s response. China has refused to criticize Pyongyang’s behavior and condemned the military exercises instead. Beijing has provided economic and political support to the North along with diplomatic cover, watering down U.N. resolutions and continuing to demand that governments concerned resume the six-party talks. When pressed by the three foreign ministers to do more, China responded by saying such demands were unreasonable.

The irony is that every top Chinese diplomat and senior official insists that China’s top priority is the maintenance of a stable environment so that the country can pursue economic development. Yet North Korea’s actions have jeopardized that peace and stability. If Northeast Asia is inching toward conflict, it is because North Korea persists in making acts of war — for that is what attacks on warships and civilians are.

Just as troubling for Beijing is the response of Japan and South Korea. Both have done the rational thing when threatened by a neighbor: They have strengthened ties with their ally, the U.S. This too is not in China’s interest. More troubling still for Beijing is the emphasis on trilateral cooperation among Tokyo, Seoul and Washington. North Korea has helped consolidate ties among the three and made it harder for China to advance its interests in the region by dividing the three nations.

China’s support for North Korea enables that regime, encouraging its leadership to believe that there are no consequences of its behavior. North Korea is the real threat to peace in this part of the world, and it will continue to provoke as long as it expects cover and protection from Beijing.

That is not to say that Beijing can control what Pyongyang does. The North Koreans are too proud for that. But unconditional Chinese backing transforms the North Korean cost-benefit calculus. At a minimum, Pyongyang must believe that it will pay a price for reckless behavior. That is the message sent to North Korea by military exercises — actions will have consequences. It is also a reassurance to Japanese and South Korean publics that the U.S. stands with them against a threatening neighbor — unlike other nations in the region.

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