China Condemns U.S. Plan For Yellow Sea Exercise
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — Chinese official media are darkly hinting about a naval response to a planned U.S.-led antisubmarine exercise with South Korea in the Yellow Sea.
“China will not stay in ‘hands-off’ mode as the drill gets underway,” said an unsigned editorial in China’s state-controlled Global Times on July 12. “Chinese airplanes and warships will very likely go all the way out to closely watch the war game maneuvers.
“Within such proximity on not-so-clearly-marked international waters, any move that is considered hostile to the other side can willy-nilly trigger a rash reaction, which might escalate into the unexpected or the unforeseen. One false move, one wrong interpretation, is all it would take for the best-planned exercises to go awry.”
The naval drill, whose date has not been announced, is intended as a response to the March 26 sinking of a South Korean naval vessel and the deaths of 46 sailors. North Korea has been blamed for the incident, and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates will be in Seoul on July 21 to discuss the issue.
But for more than a month, Chinese Foreign Ministry and defense officials have condemned plans for the military exercise, saying it threatens peace and Chinese sovereignty.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs began criticizing the U.S. exercise plans last month. On June 22, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said China was “seriously concerned” about reports that the exercise was being planned and that it might include an aircraft carrier.
“Under current situations, relevant parties should exercise restraint and refrain from doing things that may escalate tensions and harm the interests of the countries in the region,” Qin said.
On July 1, a Ministry of Defense statement said, “Chinese websites and BBS forums have been flooded with furious criticism of the planned U.S.-ROK war games.” And Gen. Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, has been quoted in the media on almost a daily basis since June expressing strong opposition to the exercise.
The scare tactics, an example of China’s anti-access/area denial strategy, might even be the beginning of a “Chinese Monroe Doctrine,” said Paul Giarra, the president of Global Strategies and Transformation, a Washington-based consulting firm.
“I see this as a huge collision,” Giarra said. “You have to take into account we are used to having our way” in these waters.” The Chinese, he said, “are trying to change the entire of calculus” of how the U.S. Navy operates there.
The Pentagon says the U.S. has the right to exercise when and where it chooses in international waters. DoD spokesman Geoff Morrell said July 14 that China is a regional power and a country “whose opinion we respect and consider, but this is a matter of our ability to exercise in the open seas, in international waters.” Morrell said that beyond the 12mile limit, “we or anybody else is free to operate.” He noted that the aircraft carrier USS George Washington was in the Yellow Sea in October without incident, “so it’s not unusual at all for U.S. to be operating in the Yellow Sea.”
The planned participation of the George Washington in the exercises has riled Chinese officials the most. Some observers say the carrier may now operate solely in the Sea of Japan during the exercise, a decision that might have been an attempt to placate China.
Part of China’s anger is due to a “century of humiliation” by Western powers, said Toshi Yoshihara, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College.
The commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, Wu Shengli, has “pegged the number of Western imperial seaborne encroachments at more than 470,” going back to the Boxer Rebellion¸ Yoshihara said.
Beyond the emotional reactions to U.S. naval exercises in the region, China has operational concerns about the protection of sea lines of communication and the security of port facilities along the coast of the Bohai Sea and Yellow Sea.
Since 2003, China has become the largest handler of seaborne containers in the world, said Yoshihara, who co-wrote the book “Chinese Naval Strategy in the 21st Century: The Turn to Mahan.” The northern Chinese ports of Qingdao, Tianjin and Dalian are three of the largest, busiest and fastestgrowing container hubs in the region, he said.
Qingdao is the headquarters of the Chinese North Sea Fleet. Tianjin serves as the commercial gateway to Beijing. A large-scale shipyard operates in Dalian, and Lushun, a neighboring port, is a major naval base. These ports serve as China’s northernmost access points to the sea and collectively serve as the Bohai Rim Economic Circle.
“As such, Beijing will no doubt intensify its vigilance over any power reconfiguration on the [Korean] peninsula that might harm the network of major cities — including the capital — and vital industries within the economic rim,” Yoshihara said.
Some Chinese observers see no need for an exercise in the Yellow Sea in response to North Korea.
“It’s not necessary to hold military exercises at this critical juncture,” said Zhuang Jianzhong, vice director, Center for National Strategy Studies, Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
Instead, Zhuang said, all sides should concentrate on maintaining regional stability and restarting six-party talks. Showing force is “contrary” to this goal and could be seen as a threat to China; an aircraft carrier, for example, would place U.S. fighters within striking distance of Chinese cities.
“If China dispatches ships near Long Beach, California, would the U.S. feel easy about it? So we are strongly against the forthcoming exercise.” Zhuang said.
INCIDENTS AT SEA
October 1994: Han-class submarine shadows the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk in the Yellow Sea.
April 2001: Chinese J-8 fighter jet collides with a U.S. EP-3E Aries intelligence aircraft near Hainan Island.
October 2006: Chinese submarine surfaces near the USS Kitty Hawk carrier group during exercises near Okinawa.
March 2009: Chinese vessels harass U.S. Navy survey ships Victorious and Impeccable.
June 2009: Chinese submarine collides with a sonar array towed by the USS John McCain near Subic Bay, Philippines.