Obama: Bowing to Beijing?

A U.S. war game retreat in the Yellow Sea may signal a critical change in the balance of will in Northeast Asia.

North Korea is furious over the U.S.-South Korean joint naval exercises scheduled to take place July 25-28 off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula in the Sea of Japan. Kim Jong Il, the country’s ruthless dictator, went so far as to threaten a “physical response” to the exercises. As the maneuvers were about to commence, however, the North Korean regime predictably retreated to a more passive stance. They toned down their rhetoric and instead warned that they would use “nuclear deterrence” to ward off any American attack.

Such bluster from Pyongyang is to be expected, and it does not necessarily warranted great concern. Rather, it has been China’s objection to the naval exercises that has commanded Washington’s attention. A July 22 editorial in the Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times claimed:

[The situation] only reminds people of Washington’s continuation of its Cold War mentality, with a stick in hand, and waving all over the place….. Aggressive show of force only creates enemies, and the US will risk getting mired in the abyss of a Cold War again.

In the real world, meanwhile, the joint exercises are clearly a reaction to North Korea’s recent use of aggressive force. While in Seoul, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited the War Memorial to pay tribute to the 46 sailors who were killed when the South Korean corvette Cheonan was sunk by a North Korean torpedo attack in March.

The incident has since escalated into a test of naval strength and resolve across Northeast Asia. Beijing’s strong support for Pyongyang is an aspect of China’s drive to dominate the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Yellow Sea. To extend its maritime reach, it needs to drive the U.S. Navy out of the area. Beijing claims this is only a “defensive” move, but the fact remains that control of these waters would threaten critical shipping lanes for raw materials and oil, upon which the trade-based economies of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Southeast Asia depend.

A lengthy commentary by an associate professor at the School of Politics and Public Administration at Guangdong Ocean University was posted on the English language site of China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency on July 13. It made the argument for Beijing’s naval expansion:

History shows no country can be a great power without a strong naval force. And no country in modern times has faced greater threats from the sea as China. It is thus logical for it to develop and modernize its marine force.

By misinterpreting the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and basing their actions on the so-called principles of “adjacency, prescription, and security,” some countries have violated its rights over islands, reefs and territorial waters.

By adding the South China Sea to its core interests, China has shown its determination to secure its maritime resources and strategic waters.

But it is Beijing that is misinterpreting the Law of the Sea convention (which the U.S. has wisely not ratified) by trying to illegitimately convert the 200 mile Economic Zone (EZ) allocated by the treaty into a claim of sovereignty. Navigation by ships and aircrafts is permitted through the EZ under the traditional principle of the “freedom of the seas.” Chinese naval strategists, however, want to declare all the waters between China and the “first island chain” that runs from Japan through Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia, to Singapore and the Straits of Malacca as “territorial seas” under Beijing’s control. In the April issue of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine, retired Cmdr. Peter Dutton, a specialist in international law, argued:

The legal conflict reflects a larger clash between China’s objective of increasing its control over its “near seas” and the American geostrategic interest in maintaining the freedom of navigation on which the health and stability of the global maritime commons rely, and which is essential to support American security guarantees in East Asia.”

The Xinhua commentary confirms Dutton’s analysis:

The disputes over rights and interests in the East China Sea, Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea are the remnants of the history of invasions of China from across the seas and colonial rule. But China’s claims are based fully on historical facts. Its territorial sovereignty, strategic resources and trade routes comprise its core interests, and like any other country China will never compromise them.

Rapid economic development and rising national strength have given China the chance to make it clear to the international community that it will never compromise its core interests.

Beijing made the EZ sovereignty argument in 2001 after one of its fighter jets intercepted and collided with a U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance plane over international waters. The American plane was forced to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island where the aircraft, with its advanced technology, was taken apart before the crew was released. In March, 2009, a group of Chinese vessels aggressively challenged two unarmed USN survey ships in international waters off the southern coast of China. And in June 2009, a Chinese submarine rammed a sonar buoy being towed by a USN destroyer near the Philippines. American policy has long been to sail through disputed waters to maintain the principle of freedom of the seas.

Beijing is particularly adamant that the U.S. strike group, led by the nuclear aircraft carrier George Washington, based in Japan, not enter the Yellow Sea as part of the joint allied exercises. A July 16 editorial in Global Times stated:

The US claims that the joint drill is to serve as a deterrent against North Korea after the sinking of a South Korean battleship. Yet it clearly knows that launching a war game off the western coast of South Korea will also be considered a hostile move against China.

As trade and financial ties between the two countries deepen, China will have much more leverage to launch counter measures. Growing nationalistic sentiment in China will also push the authorities to act tougher.

China will be less tolerant of similar acts, though in the past the US enjoyed relatively freer passage around Chinese territorial seas. Washington should no longer underestimate Beijing’s resolve to challenge US military provocation.

China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy held its own “live fire exercises” from June 30 to July 5 in the East China Sea, the gateway to the Yellow Sea.

Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell has stated that while the U.S. “respects and considers China’s views,” it will not be deterred from holding the exercises. “This is a matter of our ability to exercise in the open seas, in international waters,” said Morrell at a July 14 press conference. He asserted:

Those determinations are made by us, and us alone. Where we exercise, when we exercise, with whom and how, using what assets and so forth are determinations that are made by the United States Navy, by the Department of Defense, by the United States Government.

Brave words, but in practice, it seems the Pentagon (or the White House) has been intimidated by Beijing to keep major warships out of the Yellow Sea, even though that is where the South Korean corvette was attacked.

The joint U.S.-ROK exercise is code-named “Invincible Spirit,” but this may be more hype than reality. Adm. Robert Willard, head of Pacific Command stated at the July 20 press conference in Seoul that “this is the first in a series of exercises that are intending to send a very specific signal to the North Koreans as a consequence of the Cheonan incident.” Future exercises were promised for the West Sea, but no date was given. When Adm. Willard was asked whether the George Washington would take part in the future operations in the west, he replied, “We’re not going to discuss the particulars of the follow on in the series of exercises.”

It should be noted that the Yellow Sea was never mentioned at the press conference; the term “West Sea” was substituted. The need to appease China cast a shadow over the entire proceedings. And the next day, the Chinese Foreign Ministry again stated, “We resolutely oppose any foreign military vessel and planes conducting activities in the Yellow Sea and China’s coastal waters that undermine China’s security interests.”

If President Barack Obama kowtows to Beijing and keeps the carrier strike group out of the Yellow Sea, the naval exercise will be a show of weakness rather than of strength. It will not deter future aggression by either North Korea or China. Instead, it will encourage future challenges as the communist regimes detect a change in the balance of will (if not yet actual power) in Northeast Asia.