One Ocean, Two Systems : Drills in the Yellow Sea and China’s Maritime Outlook

By | July 06, 2012 | No Comments

Warships from South Korea, the U.S., and Japan take part in trilateral military exercises in international waters south of Jeju Island on June 22. /Courtesy of the U.S. Navy

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.

Kim Jong Un propaganda again features a double-take of this torpedo boat, which appeared twice in the January 2012 orginal Kim Jong Un bio-pic | Screen grab from Uriminzokki’s “Forward Toward the Final Victory,” via Asia Society

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.

A Moveable Feast of Anti-Imperialist Denunciation: Rodong Sinmun’s “Commentary” Page, July 4, 2012

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.

from Fisheries Cooperation and Maritime Delimitation Issues between North Korea and Its Neighboring Countries. Seong-Geol Hong, Sun-Pyo Kim, Hyung-Ki Lee

South China Sea conflicting territorial claims
via Ian Storey at

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.

Russian Prime Minister Medvedev visits Kurile Islands

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.

U.S. Secretary of Defense in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam
Source: Jonathon Watson via AFP/Pool

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.

Additional Links (dated, but still applicable) (esp summaries pg 27-28) (Van Dyke)

No Comments

  1. What an article. What a conclusion.

    China’s assertiveness? I am sick and tired of seeing China being accused of being assertive over and over again. You read about China being assertive every single day these days on western media. What is Nick Miller expecting China to do differently? Should China simply give up what she believes is hers, to appease the neighbors? Should China sit there and do nothing? I seriously wonder, what do our American and western “friends” want China to do these days? What can China do to make you happy? Surrender?

    “self-perpetuating fear that enemies from all sides are encircling it” Who is Nick Miller kidding? Does he think people are fools to buy into what Dempsey was saying? It is generally referred to as “diplomatic nicety”, or “diplomatic bullshit” as I call it. Of course the US is reinforcing its presence in the West Pacific region to contain China, of course the US is enlisting help from China’s neighbors (granted, the position China is taking is indeed driving a lot of them to the embrace of the US) to encircle and contain China, everyone knows it. What’s so surprising about it? This has been the corner stone of the US foreign policy in the region for years, if not decades. Just because Dempsey denied it, Miller thought that would have vindicated everything? How childish.

    “more assertive Chinese responses to American-coordinated drills in the Yellow Sea”? Of course it is easy for Americans like Nick Miller to vilify and discredit China’s reaction, after all it is not happening on your home turf. If the situation were to reverse, the US being the much weaker one of the two and China being the much, much stronger one of the two, enjoying lopsided military and geopolitical advantages the US currently does; I have no doubt whatsoever the US would have displayed the same kind of “assertiveness”, “sensitivities”, “rhetorical belligerence” etc. that Nick Miller and other American and western commentators constantly accuse China of, had China “coordinated” (to see how Nick Miller made light of the exercise is really funny) military drills with countries hostile to the US in the Gulf of Mexico, close to the Floridian and Louisianan shores. Seriously, does American hypocrisy know no bounds?

  2. Juchechosunmanse – As always, we can count on you to raise an alternative view and for that we thank you. We wanted to acknowledge your reply and let you know a more complete reply is still in the works.

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