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?


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.


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