China Bristles at Prospect of U.S. Aircraft Carrier in the Yellow Sea
The proposed anti-submarine exercises are part of a range of responses to the sinking earlier this year of a South Korean warship which an international investigation blamed on a North Korean torpedo. Forty-six sailors died.
Officials in Seoul said at the weekend the plans to hold the drills later this month were discussed during U.S.-South Korean security talks held in Washington on Friday. The intended location is near the inter-Korean maritime border in the Yellow Sea, a stretch of water between the west coast of the Korean peninsula and the coast of northeast China.
Initially scheduled for several weeks ago, the exercises were postponed in late June until after the U.N. Security Council finalized its response to the sinking of the Cheonan. On Friday the council adopted a statement which condemned the sinking but, at China’s insistence, did not directly blame North Korea.
With the U.N. response out of the way, China is stepping up its criticism of the upcoming exercises.
The U.S. Navy has been involved in war games in the Yellow Sea in the past, but bristling commentators in official Chinese media outlets say things have changed.
“The United States may believe that since it conducted military drills in the Yellow Sea in the past, it can do that now and in the future,” the Communist Party organ People’s Daily said in an editorial published Monday.
People’s Daily said China does not object to the presence of the U.S. Navy in the western Pacific and understands that some countries need the U.S. military to provide them with a sense of security.
“But, this does not mean the United States can ignore China’s self-esteem and drive their aircraft carrier straight to the front of China's doorstep to flex their muscles.”
The Pentagon has yet to confirm reports, citing South Korean officials, about the involvement of the USS George Washington. But the possibility that the Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier may take part in the exercise is provoking particular criticism.
In an online poll run by Global Times, a paper affiliated with People’s Daily, 96 percent of Chinese respondents agreed that a drill involving an aircraft carrier would pose a threat to China.
Based in Yokosuka, Japan since May 2008, the USS George Washington is the U.S. Navy’s first permanently forward-deployed nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. It recently returned to port for the July 4 holiday but according to the Navy sailed again on Friday.
In its own editorial, Global Times said China would likely send ships and aircraft to monitor the drill, and warned of the implications for bilateral relations of any misunderstanding or unintended incident involving U.S. and Chinese forces.
“The entire West Pacific is not the backyard of the U.S.” it said. “The U.S. must consider the impact its military presence would have on public perception and the delicate strategic balance in the area. It must give up the idea of constantly aggravating another important cornerstone of security in the region.”
Li Hongmei, a People’s Daily columnist, described a surge of nationalist sentiment reflected by posts on the Internet by ordinary Chinese calling on China to attack U.S. warships deployed close to its territorial waters.
‘Undermining China’s security interests’
The Chinese government itself has by comparison been restrained in its response, but critical nonetheless.
“We firmly oppose foreign military vessels and planes conducting activities in the Yellow Sea and China’s coastal waters that undermine China’s security interests,” said foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang.
“Our stance is consistent and clear. We have already expressed our resolute interest and concerns to related parties,” Qin told reporters. “We hope relevant parties exercise calmness and restraint and refrain from actions that might escalate tension in the region.”
As China’s naval power has grown it has become increasingly resistant to U.S. military movements in waters to its south and east.
At its widest, the Yellow Sea is around 450 miles across and countries’ territorial limits stretch only 12 nautical miles from their coastlines.
But the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea also recognizes exclusive economic zones (EEZ) stretching 200 nautical miles (about 230 miles) from a country’s coastline.
The treaty (which the U.S. has not ratified) provides for “freedom of navigation and overflight” in EEZs. It does not forbid one country from carrying out military activities inside another’s EEZ as long as the activity is “peaceful” and does not harm the coastal state’s environment or economic resources.
Nonetheless, China has challenged U.S. military activity, and especially surveillance, in its EEZ, going so far as to pass laws aimed at restricting foreign ships’ activities in those waters. Chinese vessels have also tried to harass U.S. ships in the Yellow, East China and South China seas.
On Friday, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, Gen. Walter Sharp dismissed China’s objections.
“Every country has not only the right, but the obligation to train its forces against the types of threats they see and to do it within their international territory,” he told a security conference in Seoul.
The U.S. has deployed armed forces in South Korea since the Korean War six decades ago. USFK personnel numbers currently stand at around 28,000.
Sharp urged China to cooperate more closely with South Korea and the U.S. to deter the threat posed by North Korea, which he predicted would become more provocative in the coming months
“Kim Jong-il has said that North Korea will be a great and powerful nation by 2012, and the only way he has to get to that point is through military provocations and threatening the neighbors,” he said.