Growing Tensions in East Asia


Growing Tensions in East Asia

RUSI Analysis, 6th August 2010

The US and South Korean show-of-arms against North Korea have generated accusations from China of escalating tension in the region. Is this is a legitimate security response, or a sign of China’s new-found assertiveness?

2665241731

Policy-makers in the Pentagon made a calculated decision two weeks ago to deploy the aircraft carrier USS George Washington to the Yellow Sea for a joint military drill with South Korean naval and air forces. The drill – intended to leave Pyongyang in no doubt of the resolve of the US-ROK alliance – comes in the wake of the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan by a DPRK Special Forces submarine. It appears that, under Chinese pressure, the US decided to hold the drill in the East Sea rather than the Yellow Sea.

The strength of the reaction of China’s state-controlled media and of China’s Foreign Ministry to the carrier’s deployment seemingly caught Washington off-guard with a series of editorials, statements and articles. Most described the deployment as provocative, and one editorial went so far as to compare it to the Cuban Missile Crisis1. In the most extreme example, a Chinese defence analyst2 was quoted as saying that the carrier would be targeted by Chinese weapons systems.

A justified reaction?

From a Chinese perspective, the strength of this reaction is justified, stemming from a concern over the presence of one of the most powerful symbols of US military might within 500 kilometres of Beijing. Furthermore, the carrier is a stark reminder of China’s apparent weakness during the Taiwan Straits missile crisis of 1995-6. On the other hand, China’s reaction challenges international legal norms; the waters in question are international waters.

While China has not submitted a legal challenge to the US military presence, its reaction might be viewed as part of a wider trend of asserting its maritime territorial claim in the region. In early July, for example, Chinese officials told their visiting American counterparts that the South China Sea – a vital shipping lane for China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan – was now considered  a ‘core interest’3. This phrase marks an interesting shift in Asian Pacific security affairs, and brings the body of water to the same level of significance as Tibet and Taiwan for China. While international legal norms are never clear, it does appear that the US and other South China Sea claimants view China’s assertion as a form of ‘creeping sovereignty’.

Naturally, since the issue is a vital one for all states involved in maritime trade, it deserves a rigorous and thorough examination by a body such as the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), based in Hamburg. However, as always, the problem is persuading the states involved to agree to arbitrate. Returning to the issue of the Cheonan sinking, China’s reaction to the Yellow Sea drill sidesteps the fact that a North Korean vessel deliberately sank a South Korean vessel, a serious casus belli, and as of yet, remains unpunished for the act. While China and Russia have publicly expressed doubt over North Korea’s culpability in the matter, a multinational investigation team comprising experts from Sweden, the United Kingdom, Australia, the US, and South Korea found North Korea responsible and issued these findings in a public report.

Capitalising on the atmosphere of doubt on the issue, China has managed to impede US and South Korean efforts to punish the North diplomatically in the UN Security Council, resulting in a harmless Presidential Statement condemning the attack.

US interests

There is a clear difference in how these events are perceived in the Chinese media and in the Western media. Many in Beijing see China as merely safe-guarding its own interests in areas vital to its defence. Some in the West point to the shift in Chinese policy following the US economic crisis, a sense of confidence resulting from China’s own economic bounce-back. Certainly, concern about Chinese intentions is no longer restricted to media sources. In July, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen gave a speech in South Korea, in which he reiterated concern over China’s military build-up4. His concern also reflects a US unease with the affect that China has on the regional order. By protecting Pyongyang from punishment over the sinking of the Cheonan, China also subtly undermines the US security guarantees given to its regional allies.

Asia Pacific security

While the Cheonan incident was a tragic incident for the families of the sailors killed, it is also part of a wider concern over China’s strategic intent. This relates to the growth of Chinese military power in the region, how it interprets international legal norms and reacts to the security system already in place. The current US security arrangements in the Asia Pacific have worked well for the last 60 years; indeed, to some extent the Asian miracle was built on the security guarantees that enabled states to concentrate on economic growth, and the freedom of the seas that enabled them to achieve that growth. Unlike NATO, the system is a loose patchwork of bilateral alliances between Washington and regional capitals. While this has sufficed up until now, the question is whether it will continue to be enough.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

The Syrian Intifada

a-shab yurid iskat an-nizam

Jeremy S. Maxie

Energy & Political Risk Consultant

In Pace

Peace in Korea and beyond

southseaconversations 讨论南海

China comments on the South (China) Sea disputes

Christopher Phillips

Academic, Writer, Commentator

tokyocooney

(does america)

Philosophical Politics

political philosophy of current events

Minh Thi's blog

pieces of me

North Korea Leadership Watch

Research and Analysis on the DPRK Leadership

National Post

Canadian News, World News and Breaking Headlines

Quartz

Quartz is a digitally native news outlet for the new global economy.

TIME

Current & Breaking News | National & World Updates

Moscow-on-Thames

Sam Greene - London & Moscow

kirstyevidence

Musings on research, international development and other stuff

The Rights Angle

Francesca Pizzutelli's blog on human rights and human beings

Bayard & Holmes

If you're in a fair fight, you're using poor tactics

Grand Blog Tarkin

A roundtable of strategists from across all space and time.

Sky Dancing

a place to discuss real issues

Oscar Relentos

Welcome to my catharsis

mkseparatistreport

A Blog Focused on Bringing Policy and Chinese language Translations Relating to Separatists and Terrorism

playwithlifeorg

4 out of 5 dentists recommend this WordPress.com site

HarsH ReaLiTy

A Good Blog is Hard to Find

Variety as Life Spice

Words by a post-90s in Hong Kong

KURT★BRINDLEY

writing ★ producing ★ editing

Foreign Policy

the Global Magazine of News and Ideas

Top 10 of Anything and Everything!!!

Animals, Gift Ideas, Travel, Books, Recycling Ideas and Many, Many More

Eleanor Robinson-Yamaguchi

Specialist in Japanese History and Culture

ABDALLAH ATTALLAH

Futurist | Disruptor | Coach | Reformer

Anglo-Japan Alliance

A new type of alliance

Small House Bliss

Small house designs with big impact

Europe Asia Security Forum

European perspectives on Asian security, and vice-versa

Shashank Joshi

Royal United Services Institute | Harvard University

secretaryclinton.wordpress.com/

A PRIVATE BLOG DEVOTED TO FOREIGN POLICY & THE SECRETARY OF STATE

Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

springdaycomedy

Just another WordPress.com site

James Strong

Junior academic working on British foreign policy

Justice in Conflict

On the challenges of pursuing justice

Politics: Middle East

an analysis of the contemporary middle east

Sino-NK

Sino-NK is a research website for Sinologists and Koreanists.

%d bloggers like this: