This week's show of force off the Korean Peninsula by Washington and Seoul is the biggest in decades and is intended to warn North Korea not to take aggressive action against South Korea. China, of course, objects to the exercises and has called for "restraint."
In deference to Chinese sensitivities, the U.S. decided not to deploy the aircraft carrier George Washington in the Yellow Sea; instead, activities of the nuclear-powered carrier and 20-odd ships and submarines, plus 200 aircraft, were be confined to the east of the peninsula. But China clearly doesn't think that's restraint enough. The official Xinhua news agency said "many analysts expressed concern that the war games … could heighten tension, thus making dialogues more difficult."
The sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan in March, allegedly by a North Korean torpedo, has strengthened the alliance between Seoul and Washington. Last week, the two countries held a historic "two plus two" meeting involving their foreign and defence ministers and exhorted North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programs completely and verifiably.
Relations between Seoul and Washington have become much closer in recent months. At the nuclear security summit in April, President Barack Obama disclosed that President Lee Myung-bak had agreed to play host to the second such summit in 2012. The Cheonan incident also has strengthened the U.S.-Japanese military alliance. After months of discord over the relocation of the Futenma military base in Okinawa, Japan backed down, citing the sinking of the South Korean warship as proof of a need for placing the alliance on "a solid relationship of mutual trust." For the first time, Japanese officers are observing the joint U.S.-Korean naval exercises.
While Washington is working with its Asian partners to deter North Korea, it's also using the current situation to reassert its presence in Asia, despite a rising China and a widespread perception of American decline. Not only is the U.S. taking part in military drills off eastern China, it's also asserting its interests in the South China Sea, which Beijing has identified as its own "core interest."
After U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Seoul for the "two plus two" meeting, she went to Hanoi for a gathering of the ASEAN Regional Forum, where she declared that American national interest was involved in the resolution of disputes in the South China Sea. These disputes pit China against much smaller countries in Southeast Asia, such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. Ms. Clinton, in effect, was weighing in on the side of the smaller countries vis-à-vis China.
Not surprisingly, Beijing rejected this attempt to "internationalize" the South China Sea issue. The Global Times, sister newspaper of the People's Daily, carried an article headlined American Shadow Over South China Sea in which it warned Southeast Asian countries that "regional stability will be difficult to maintain" if they "allow themselves to be controlled" by the United States. "Southeast Asian countries need to understand any attempt to maximize gains by playing a balancing game between China and the U.S. is risky. … China will never waive its right to protect its core interest with military means."
Given such thinking in Beijing, it's understandable that the countries of Southeast Asia don't want to be abandoned to the tender mercies of their giant neighbour. But they're also eager to strengthen their economic ties with China. Thus, they're torn between a desire for U.S.-guaranteed security and China-linked prosperity.
Frank Ching, a Hong Kong-based writer, is author of China: The Truth About Its Human Rights Record .