After years of watching apprehensively as China expands its influence in East Asia, the region's "old power," the United States, is now pushing firmly back, drawing Beijing's ire by asserting itself in two separate disputes on China's periphery.
Despite protests from Beijing over its deployment so close to Chinese waters, the USS George Washington – a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and one of the largest ships in the U.S. fleet – led joint naval and air exercises with South Korea that began Sunday off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula. An armada of 20 warships took part, backed by some 8,000 U.S. and South Korean soldiers and 200 aircraft.
The massive war games, which will continue for weeks, are meant to intimidate North Korea – a close Chinese ally – following the sinking of a South Korean warship earlier this year in an incident that an international investigation has blamed on Pyongyang. The show of force began days after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton angered Beijing by declaring that disputes between China and its neighbours over international boundaries in the strategically important South China Sea are a U.S. "national interest."
Codenamed "Invincible Spirit," the joint U.S.-South Korean exercise is the largest in years and was portrayed as a response to the March 26 sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean corvette that evidence shows was struck by a North Korean torpedo. Pyongyang has denied involvement in the incident, which left 46 South Korean sailors dead.
China – which received North Korean leader Kim Jong-il with full honours in Beijing shortly after the Cheonan was sunk – has rejected the results of the investigation that found Pyongyang responsible, and repeatedly warned against the George Washington's participation in Invincible Spirit. In apparent deference to China, Sunday's initial drills were conducted in the East Sea (also known as the Sea of Japan), though U.S. and South Korean commanders suggested that exercises in the Yellow Sea, off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula and close to Chinese territorial waters, would follow.
While U.S. aircraft carriers have operated in the Yellow Sea in the past, China has been more outspoken than usual in its opposition to the George Washington's participation in the naval exercise, and conducted naval and air drills of its own in the Yellow Sea last week.
"Washington might not have realized that today's East Asia is so much different from that of the last century. … Aggressive show of force only creates enemies, and the U.S. will risk getting mired in the abyss of a Cold War again," read an editorial headlined "U.S. must rethink East Asia strategy" that ran last week in the Global Times, a newspaper viewed as a mouthpiece of China's ruling Communist Party.
North Korea also loudly railed against the war games, warning on Saturday via its official news agency that it would respond "with our powerful nuclear deterrent" if Invincible Spirit went ahead. North Korea, which regularly threatens war, has carried out two nuclear tests since 2006.
The naval exercises began two days after Ms. Clinton reportedly clashed behind closed doors at a summit of Southeast Asian countries with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi over a U.S. proposal to establish an international mechanism that would mediate overlapping claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea, a body of water on which China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia all have coasts.
"The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia's maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea," Ms. Clinton declared last week at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Hanoi. Washington is believed to have waded diplomatically into the issue at the urging of Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines, who have all raised concerns over China's growing naval capabilities and the possibility that Beijing could use force to dominate the hydrocarbon-rich waters, which also contain some of the world's busiest commercial shipping routes.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday that China's navy has recently been taking "a much more aggressive approach" in the South China Sea and other waters in which Beijing claims a strategic or economic interest. Following a rapid buildup in recent years, Adm. Mullen said he had moved from "being curious about where China is headed [militarily]to being concerned about it."
Beijing, which characterized Ms. Clinton's intervention as an "attack," recently claimed the South China Sea as its own "core interest," elevating it to the same status as Tibet and Taiwan, two issues on which Chinese policy – that both are integral parts of the People's Republic – is absolute and unbending. "The U.S. shouldn't internationalize the South China Sea issue, which could only make matters worse and complicate the situation," Mr. Yang said in a statement published Sunday on the website of China's Foreign Ministry.