U.S.-South Korea war games raise China’s hackles


China views the military exercises in the Sea of Japan as a threat to its territorial integrity. Beijing’s indignation appears calibrated to push back at U.S. dominance in the region.

As far as Beijing is concerned, the U.S.-South Korean joint air and sea military exercises that took place this week in the Sea of Japan were a direct threat to China’s territorial integrity.

For days now, China’s state-controlled media have been beating the drums of war with editorials, each more confrontational than the last.

“What will Americans feel if the Chinese or Russian military travel across the ocean to hold their exercises in the high seas not far from the coast of Florida, New York or California?” demanded an editorial writer in Tuesday’s English-language China Daily.

China’s reaction has been equally sharp regarding remarks Friday by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Hanoi suggesting that China submit to international mediation to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The Global Times, which has close ties to the Communist Party, accused the United States on Wednesday of trying to “ambush China in its backyard.”

Beijing’s indignation appears aimed at asserting new boundaries around its waters and at pushing back at the United States’ long-standing dominance in East Asian waters.

“China is protesting because they now feel powerful enough to do so,” said Han Suk-hee, an expert on Chinese-North Korean relations at the Graduate School of International Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. “They feel more mature as a superpower, ready to manage the world, certainly the seas off their own coastline.”

Perhaps not by coincidence, China conducted its own military drills near the Yellow Sea coast on the same days that the U.S.-South Korean military drill was taking place, according to the state media. An artillery division of the Nanjing Military Region test-fired rockets toward the sea and tested unmanned drone aircraft and radar, Chinese state media reported Wednesday. The Chinese did not say whether the exercises were in response to the U.S.-South Korean exercises that began Sunday and ended Wednesday.

The U.S.-South Korean exercises — the largest in more than three decades — involved 8,000 military personnel, 20 warships and 200 aircraft, including the aircraft carrier George Washington. They were supposed to serve as a warning to North Korea over the sinking in March of a South Korean warship, which killed 46 crewmen, though North Korea has denied involvement. China also has refused to accept the conclusions of a South Korea-led investigation by international experts — that the warship Cheonan was sunk by a North Korean torpedo.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said during a visit to Seoul this month that the joint war games were “to send a clear message to North Korea that its aggressive behavior must stop.”

North Korea, which had threatened a nuclear strike because of the military drills, on Wednesday reportedly called for the U.S. to end its hostile policy against the country.

The military exercises were originally planned for the Yellow Sea but were moved to the Sea of Japan as a concession to Chinese objections, many observers claim.

“The U.S. and South Korea paid attention to China’s worries and changed the location of the drill,” Zhou Yongsheng, a professor from China Foreign Affairs University, wrote in Oriental Outlook, a government magazine. “It is not merely because the U.S. and South Korea were trying to ‘give face’ to China. It has shown China’s power and impact in Northeast Asia is rising.”

Bonnie Glaser, a China fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Beijing has overreacted to the U.S.-South Korean exercises.

“The Chinese are very sensitive about having foreign military ships anywhere near their coastline, insisting there are no international waters in the Yellow Sea,” Glaser said. “They’re also very prone to conspiracy theories. On this issue, it doesn’t serve their interests.”

Demick reported from Beijing and Glionna from Seoul.