The turbulence that is roiling the waters off China’s east and northeastern shores has far-reaching implications. Two messages among those emitted by the just concluded first phase of US-ROK joint military exercises mandate attention namely: US strategy towards China is one of cooperation and not capitulation, and the status quo that had begun to settle in the waters of the Yellow, East and South China Seas has changed.
The military exercises have reinforced apprehensions in Beijing that the US has decided to re-enter the Asia-Pacific region and maintain a dominant presence there. By engaging in these joint military exercises Washington has put the brakes on Beijing’s steady and persistent efforts to expand the definition of areas of its ‘core interest’ and bring these within China’s suzerain.
Washington, by participating in the military exercise with South Korea at this time of rising tension in North East Asia and appreciably raising the force-strength of the exercise, has also reinforced its commitment to an ally in the Asia-Pacific region and a neighbour of China. The action has given comfort to other US allies in the region as well as those wary of China’s ambitions and dispelled notions that US interest in the region was weakening or that commitments elsewhere had compelled the US to reduce force deployments in the Asia-Pacific.
Of particular interest was the quiet announcement — implicitly emphasising the US intention to remain the dominant force in the region — that during the next round of exercises scheduled for September, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington would be deployed in the Yellow Sea. The announcement appeared to reverse an earlier decision to keep USS George Washington away from the Yellow Sea due to China’s objections.
China has predictably taken serious note of the US action. The unprecedented, large-scale US-ROK joint military exercise ‘Invincible Spirit’, where elements of Japan’s Self-Defence Forces participated, has seen the deployment of firepower on such a massive scale for the first time in 34 years in the region. The 97,000-tonne nuclear-powered USS George Washington has sailed in these waters for the first time. It was also the first time that the F-22 Raptor Stealth aircraft of the US Air Force flew over Korean skies. Chinese military analysts pointed out that the F-22 flies for long stretches at supersonic speeds and is capable of destroying North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s office, nuclear facilities, missile bases and other military targets in 40-60 minutes. The F-22 could just as easily, they pointed out, target China.
The stated objective of the joint military exercises was to demonstrate US strength to North Korea, exert pressure on it and warn Pyongyang against any rash action aimed at the Seoul. The other equally strong message was to inform Beijing that the US would stay on as the dominant power in the region, that it would come to the aid of its allies, and that China would not be allowed to further its territorial ambitions unimpeded.
The islands in the South China Sea, which sit atop an estimated 130 million barrels of oil and natural gas, are important to China. Over the years, Beijing has asserted its claim over a number of islands in the Yellow Sea, Sea of Japan and the South China Sea and entered into disputes with countries such as Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. Chinese military strategists and military personnel were therefore quick to note that the joint military exercises were equally intended to apply pressure on China. Note was taken of Japan’s participation. A scholar of an official think-tank affiliated to China’s intelligence apparatus analysed that the US had led a gradual build up of naval forces around China’s periphery. He enumerated that the US is enhancing its naval deployment in the Asia-Pacific region, that Japan is unwilling to be inactive and is striving to become an Asia-Pacific regional power, that Russia is trying to gain prominence, and India is strengthening relations with Japan and ASEAN.
Other articles in the official media observed that China’s neighbours had not bought into its ‘peaceful rising’ theory. They were particularly critical of Vietnam, accusing it of having taken a series of ‘unfriendly’ steps and hosting US Navy ships. Japan was similarly accused of preparing to station troops on some islets in the Diaoyu group of islands. A commentary in a Beijing-owned Hong Kong-based paper accused the US of ‘reviving Cold War mentality’. It asserted that ‘China does not want to fight a war with the US in North East Asia’ but warned that ‘if the US-ROK military exercise is aimed at China, it means the US is deliberately creating for itself the world’s most powerful enemy’.
China permitted its citizens and nationalistic youth to post articles and blogs critical of the US. The PLA also, quite unusually, publicised the conduct of at least six military exercises. One of these had the defence of Beijing as its scenario. The large-scale exercises in the South China Sea on July 26 were witnessed by PLA chief Chen Bingde. He declared that the PLA should “pay attention to the developing international situation” and “make preparations for military struggle”. At least two more military exercises are planned in the South China Sea. During this period of rising tension in July and August, China’s military also conducted at least three exercises across India in the Tibet Military District. This suggestion of accretion in military strength comes in the backdrop of China’s sustained pressure on India regarding Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh.
Official public comments on the dispute have been carefully worded. In his first comment the Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman, Senior Colonel Geng Yangsheng said the “media should not over-interpret war games and make subjective speculation about any heightened situation”. Colonel Han Xudong of the National Defence University, wrote in an official weekly that the term ‘core interests’ should not be loosely used and that ‘China’s muscle is weak compared to the US’. Yet other analysts recommended that China bide its time and meanwhile modernise its navy. By allowing visits to Beijing by senior US officials recently, the Chinese leadership confirmed its desire to defuse tensions.
More rounds of the recently concluded US-ROK exercises are to follow, however, when tensions will again rise. The ongoing confrontation with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands is reflective of the underlying tensions in the region and confirms that China’s leadership will not back off from its territorial claims in the South China Sea. The announcement of August 27, that a manned Chinese submarine embedded China’s national flag on the seabed in the South China Sea in May, reinforces this. Beijing will, however, try and calibrate escalation of tension to insulate Sino-US relations from damage. Beijing will also accelerate re-formulation of its Asia Policy and modernisation of its navy
About the author:
Jayadeva Ranade is a former additional secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India