Drills stir fear of return to Cold War

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Drills stir fear of return to Cold War

A second South Korea-U.S. joint military drill in response to the Cheonan sinking by North Korea starts today, and China is ratcheting up its opposition to the drill.

Some observers believe that the level of the rhetoric is so intense that there could be a revival of the Cold War, maybe even “physical confrontation” between the U.S. and China.

“The confrontation [between the U.S. and China] shows little sign of being defused,” said Kim Geun-sik, a professor at Kyungnam University. “No one is offering an exit strategy concerning the Cheonan incident, and people are concerned that the tension will likely last for a while.”

Other experts said China is using the incident to bolster its naval defense interests, and some said South Korea has a role to play in resolving the escalating U.S.-China tension.

In a meeting with Korean lawmakers visiting China last week, Wang Jiarui, chief of the International Liaison Department of the Chinese Communist Party, warned that more conflict could occur because of the South Korea-U.S. joint military drills. The reference to a bigger conflict, some observers said, implies a conflict between the U.S. and China, as opposed to the recent inter-Korean tensions triggered by the Cheonan incident in March, in which 46 South Korean sailors were killed in the Yellow Sea. South Korea and the U.S. held joint military drills on July 25-28 in the East Sea, in a show of force against North Korea over the Cheonan sinking.

This second drill includes the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier U.S.S. George Washington and is being carried out in the Yellow Sea.

This latest drill is triggering stronger opposition from China, which shares the Yellow Sea with the two Koreas. China is North Korea’s biggest ally. The Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned Ryu Woo-ik, the Korean ambassador to China, early last month to deliver the message. It has repeatedly sent the same message through diplomatic channels, the sources said.

China’s military newspaper People’s Liberation Army Daily also expressed opposition in an editorial last week, saying the drill could “affect China’s security interests.”

“If no one harms me, I harm no one, but if someone harms me, I must harm them,” said the editorial, signed by Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan. “As far as the Chinese people and the Chinese military are concerned, these are not joking remarks.”

The Chinese government is not the only one concerned about recent events. A recent poll by the Chinese research agency Global Poll Center surveyed 1,296 Chinese people living in seven Chinese cities and found that 66 percent of those surveyed believe China faces threats to its security and 76 percent called for China to be better prepared for a military attack.

The agency cited the U.S.-South Korea joint military drill and increasing tension between China and the U.S. over the South China Sea as the major reasons for the public sentiment.

Diplomatic observers said the U.S., on the other hand, is uncomfortable with the position being taken by the Chinese. China, one said, “has gone too far.”

Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff said last week that China’s assertion that “the Yellow Sea is somehow almost territorial seas for the Chinese” could not be “further from the truth.”

“This is international water,” he said in a Pentagon statement.

Seoul’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the friction between the U.S. and China is defensive by nature.

For South Korea, the drills have been undertaken to guard against additional provocation from North Korea, as well as for securing stability on the Korean Peninsula, said a ministry official. “Doesn’t China undertake military drills for the sake of defense?”

Gweon Yong-lib, an international politics professor at Kyungsung University, said the U.S. resolution to conduct the joint military drill in the Yellow Sea and China’s vehement opposition both involve long-standing considerations.

“China considers the Yellow Sea as its own sea and thinks allowing a U.S. aircraft carrier into the Yellow Sea would be an endorsement of more such military drills there,” Gweon said.

Gweon said the U.S. considers the drill as a necessary warning against what it sees is an increasing attempt by China to display its fast-growing political and military presence.

Earlier in the year, U.S.-China relations were strained over several other issues: the U.S. decision to export weapons to Taiwan; a meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama; and China’s lopsided profit-taking from trade with the U.S.

Then, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton drew China’s ire with the mention at the Asean Regional Forum last month that territorial disputes over the South China Sea needed diplomatic dialogue. China claims the sea as its own, in conflict with six countries in the region including Vietnam and Taiwan over the past 50 years.

Choi Choon-heum, a U.S.-China relations expert at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said the Seoul-Washington joint military drill is providing an excuse for China to increase its naval presence.

Choi said China, though it strongly opposes the mobilization of the U.S.S. George Washington, is aware that the joint military drill is defensive by nature. During the Third Taiwan Straight Crisis in the mid-1990s, when China threatened Taiwan with a series of large-size missile tests, the U.S. dispatched two aircraft carriers to the area in response to the Chinese threat.

“It is said that the U.S. is ready to enter a war when it has at least two aircraft carriers mobilized, and China knows that the George Washington is not for offense, but for defense,” Choi said. He said the joint drill is a good excuse for China to tighten its military power.

Experts said that for now, the chances of war are low because China’s military capacity still does not match that of the U.S. According to military sources, as of January, the U.S. Navy had 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers but the Chinese had none.

Gweon, of Kyungsung University, said the verbal sparring between Washington and Beijing will continue. But others are worried that the tension, if left as it is, could harm South Korea-China relations, especially economically.

China is South Korea’s largest trade partner, with the bilateral trade accounting for more than a fifth of South Korea’s annual trade volume. Last year, South Korea-China trade stood at $141 billion. Research shows that a free trade agreement between the two could increase South Korea’s gross domestic product by more than 3 percent.

To reassure China that its drills are purely defensive, South Korea needs to do more, observers said.

Choo Jae-woo, a professor at Kyung Hee University, said South Korea needs to flex its diplomatic muscles to seek understanding from China.

“So far, the government has lacked efforts to seek understanding from China. It should have sent a special presidential envoy and mobilized a channel for diplomatic dialogue,” Choo said.

By Moon Gwang-lip [joe@joongang.co.kr]
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