For the first time, Korean, Japanese and U.S. Forces conducted a tri-lateral exercise in the Yellow Sea. China released a carefully worded statement emphasizing that the exercises took place “beyond the territorial waters of any country.” Those seven words are critical to China and to Chinese claims to disputed waters in Southeast Asia. They also indicate a strong likelihood of future divergence in Chinese and Korean positions for maritime claims. Even though the conflicting claims in the Yellow Sea are just as complicated as those in Southeast Asia, all parties in the areas around the Yellow Sea presently have an interest in keeping the conflict to a minimum. China is applying two different strategies to contested waters. North Korean behavior seems to be forcing the allies closer together. – Roger Cavazos, Coordinator
One Ocean, Two Systems : Drills in the Yellow Sea, and China’s Maritime Outlook
by Nick Miller
Joint naval drills between the United States and South Korea were launched on June 23, 2012 in the Yellow Sea. The drill involved 10 South Korean warships, the USS George Washington aircraft carrier, 8,000 personnel and aircraft. The joint drills between South and the United States occur every year and alternate between either the Yellow Sea or the Sea of Japan.
Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) reported that the three-day exercise had taken place near the town of Tae’an with the goal of boosting the operations between the United States and South Korea to detect and track any long-range missiles the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) might launch.
Navy Brig. (Rear Admiral) General Park Seong-bae stated that the exercise was to show the ‘resolute capabilities’ between the United States and South Korea in deterring North Korean aggression. North Korea’s KCNA reported that the drill was actually a plan for the United States and South Korea to launch a preemptive strike and start a war against the DPRK.
The same contradictory juxtapositions were evident when the South Korean JCS said that the drill was going to focus on the detection and destruction of North Korean submarines; later, the KCNA praised the efficacy of North Korean subs in sinking American vessels during the Korean War, warning their rivals that “Juche-style” tactics could be in the offing.
The Worker’s Party of Korea (WKP) state organ, Rodong Sinmun, decried the drill, saying it was only part of the greater plan for the United States to form a triple military alliance with South Korea and Japan to rule the Asian Pacific area.
China’s Response to the Drills | China condemned the US presence in the Yellow Sea. During the joint South Korean- US exercises in the Yellow Sea in 2010 after the sinking of the Cheonan, General Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the armed general staff, stated that China opposed foreign military exercises in that region because of the close proximity to China, despite being held beyond the territorial waters of any country.
China ratified the UN law of the sea treaty in 1982, which bans military maneuvers in waters out to 22km (13.6 miles) without the permission of the coastal state, but there is no ban on exercises within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which can go as far out as 370km (229 miles) from the coast. In a July 23, 2010 Xinhua article the Chinese government reiterated its view that throughout history a country could not be seen as a great power without a strong navy, and that the navy helps to protect core interests in the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, Taiwan Straits, and South China Sea.
Sino-Russian Maritime Coordination | While China disputes US’s presence in the Yellow Sea, in April, China held its own joint drills with Russia. This was the first time China and Russia held joint navy drills. Deputy Foreign Minister spokesperson Liu Weimin stated that the drills were done to “uphold regional peace and security”. The drill had over 4,000 Chinese service personnel, 16 vessels that included five missile destroyers, five missile frigates, four missile boats, support vessels, and a hospital ship. Russia had four ships- three missile cruisers and three supply ships. The drill purpose was for both Russia and China to practice coordinating hijack ship rescues, joint maritime air defense, anti-submarine tactics, and search and rescue tactics.
Chen Bingde, Chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) stated that drills would strengthen the naval forces of both countries to confront new regional threats. However, he did not specify those regional threats. Nikolai Makarov, Chen’s Russian counterpart, stated that Russia saw great importance in cooperating with China to ensure Asian-Pacific security throughout the region.
China and Russia have moved closer together strategically within the international community and blocked attempts by the US for further restrictions against Syria. The joint drills in April only show that China is looking to its former enemy as a new ally to offset the US presence in Asia. Russian President Vladimir Putin stated on June 6, 2012 that he wanted to boost further military ties and do more joint exercises with China.
China is looking to Russia for assistance because it fears the rising US presence in Asia and is skeptical of U.S. intentions within the region believing that the US’s rationale for its pivot to Asia was to contain China. This point has been disputed constantly; most recently by Chairman of the joint Chief of Staff General Martin Dempsey stating that US shift in Asia is not done out of imperialism or hegemonic rule but rather the concern that without a US presence and active engagement in Asia it would be a destabilizing factor throughout the region. In addition, General Dempsey argued that if we did not look towards Asia, our allies within the area would interpret that as lack of US interest in the region.
(China’s assertiveness in standing by its claim to the islands in the South China Sea is resulting in a backlash throughout numerous countries in the Asian Pacific, and seeing more Asian countries driven by Chinese actions towards the United States. The June 3 visit of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam (where the Secretary met with the Vietnamese government to develop a better relationship and use of the critical naval port) is but one example.
Conclusion | As China’s rhetorical belligerence within the region increases and the hawks wrest control of the policy, it only furthers its self-perpetuating fear that enemies from all sides are encircling it. Even its partnership with Russia has its own pitfalls. Both sides were unable to reach an agreement over energy deals, Chinese migrants, and Russia expanding hydrocarbon developments in the Spratly archipelago within the disputed South China Sea.
China’s response to the American drills in the Yellow Sea was moderate in comparison. While the PRC has steadfastly voiced apprehension about ROK-Japan defense coordination, China has been discussing more coordination with both parties independently, and has refused to participate in joint naval or air drills with their ostensible North Korean allies. However, the developments in the South China Sea and the sensitivities they aggravate in Beijing may at some point lead to more assertive Chinese responses to American-coordinated drills in the Yellow Sea.
(dated, but still applicable)
(esp summaries pg 27-28)