North Korea is furious over the U.S.-South Korean joint naval exercises scheduled to take place July 25-28 off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula in the Sea of Japan. Kim Jong Il, the country’s ruthless dictator, went so far as to threaten a “physical response” to the exercises. As the maneuvers were about to commence, however, the North Korean regime predictably retreated to a more passive stance. They toned down their rhetoric and instead warned that they would use “nuclear deterrence” to ward off any American attack.
Such bluster from Pyongyang is to be expected, and it does not necessarily warranted great concern. Rather, it has been China’s objection to the naval exercises that has commanded Washington’s attention. A July 22 editorial in the Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times claimed:
[The situation] only reminds people of Washington’s continuation of its Cold War mentality, with a stick in hand, and waving all over the place….. Aggressive show of force only creates enemies, and the US will risk getting mired in the abyss of a Cold War again.
In the real world, meanwhile, the joint exercises are clearly a reaction to North Korea’s recent use of aggressive force. While in Seoul, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited the War Memorial to pay tribute to the 46 sailors who were killed when the South Korean corvette Cheonan was sunk by a North Korean torpedo attack in March.
The incident has since escalated into a test of naval strength and resolve across Northeast Asia. Beijing’s strong support for Pyongyang is an aspect of China’s drive to dominate the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Yellow Sea. To extend its maritime reach, it needs to drive the U.S. Navy out of the area. Beijing claims this is only a “defensive” move, but the fact remains that control of these waters would threaten critical shipping lanes for raw materials and oil, upon which the trade-based economies of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Southeast Asia depend.
A lengthy commentary by an associate professor at the School of Politics and Public Administration at Guangdong Ocean University was posted on the English language site of China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency on July 13. It made the argument for Beijing’s naval expansion:
History shows no country can be a great power without a strong naval force. And no country in modern times has faced greater threats from the sea as China. It is thus logical for it to develop and modernize its marine force.
By misinterpreting the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and basing their actions on the so-called principles of “adjacency, prescription, and security,” some countries have violated its rights over islands, reefs and territorial waters.
By adding the South China Sea to its core interests, China has shown its determination to secure its maritime resources and strategic waters.
But it is Beijing that is misinterpreting the Law of the Sea convention (which the U.S. has wisely not ratified) by trying to illegitimately convert the 200 mile Economic Zone (EZ) allocated by the treaty into a claim of sovereignty. Navigation by ships and aircrafts is permitted through the EZ under the traditional principle of the “freedom of the seas.” Chinese naval strategists, however, want to declare all the waters between China and the “first island chain” that runs from Japan through Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia, to Singapore and the Straits of Malacca as “territorial seas” under Beijing’s control. In the April issue of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine, retired Cmdr. Peter Dutton, a specialist in international law, argued:
The legal conflict reflects a larger clash between China’s objective of increasing its control over its “near seas” and the American geostrategic interest in maintaining the freedom of navigation on which the health and stability of the global maritime commons rely, and which is essential to support American security guarantees in East Asia.”