top of page

"Chinese Sovereign Waters", "Waters of China's Interests","Psychologic

Despite media reports originating from South Korea that the proposed US-South Korea joint naval exercise as a warning signal to North Korea may not be held as originally scheduled in the Yellow Sea and may instead be held in the middle of this month off South Korea’s southern or eastern coast, Chinese media and blogs have kept up their criticism of the move for holding the exercise in the Yellow Sea and the proposed participation of the nuclear-powered US aircraft carrier “USS George Washington” in it. They project it as a threat to China and as presaging a conflict between an emerging naval power seeking its due place and rights in the Western Pacific and a hegemonic naval power trying to counter it.

2.Some of the concepts/ideas figuring in the articles such as “China’s sovereign waters”, “waters of China’s interests” and “psychological territorial seas” need close study and analysis by our naval experts. They should also note that China has been increasingly assertive in support of its territorial and marine resources claims in the South China Sea and has expanded its definition of core interests to cover the South China Sea too, causing misgivings in the region. An article in the “China Daily” of July 13,2010, by an academic said: “Its (China’s) territorial sovereignty, strategic resources and trade routes comprise its core interests, and like any other country China will never compromise them. Rapid economic development and rising national strength have given China the chance to make it clear to the international community that it will never compromise its core interests. By adding the South China Sea to its core interests, China has shown its determination to secure its maritime resources and strategic waters. Its South China Sea strategy should thus be seen as a move to make up for its past ignorance about sea power and not as an aggressive expansionist measure.”

3.Extracts of interest from the articles are given below:

(1). From an article titled “US—South Korean Maritime War Games Needlessly Provocative” by Prof.Shen Dingli, Director of the Centre For American Studies at Fudan University, in the “Global Times” of July 13,2010: “The US and South Korea are implementing joint military exercises this month in the Yellow Sea, with the possibility of deploying the US aircraft carrier George Washington. The running of such exercises so close to China’s waters has left China strongly, and rightfully, dissatisfied. The US and South Korea may argue that the exercise is not in China’s territorial waters, so China has no right to comment. However, even if the joint exercises are not in Chinese sovereign waters, they may take place in the waters of China’s interests as the international waters at Yellow Sea near China’s exclusive economic zone are extremely important to China’s interests. ….Military exercises aimed at provoking other countries in the waters of important Chinese interests can only be seen as a threat, and China should strongly oppose them….China’s strong reaction is also part of its defensive diplomacy, which aims at dissolving the tension before it escalates into a serious crisis. China may not have the military strength to forcibly prevent such exercises now, but it may do so in response to such provocative actions in the future”.

(2). From an editorial of the “Global Times” titled “Watch out for China-US tension at sea” published on July 12,2010: “The eventuality that Beijing has to prepare for is close at hand. The delayed US-South Korean naval exercise in the Yellow Sea is now slated for mid-July. According to media reports, a nuclear-powered US aircraft carrier has left its Japanese base and is headed for the drill area. In their recent responses, several high-ranking Chinese navy officials have made it plain that China will not stay in “hands-off” mode as the drill gets underway. For, that will make the US believe that China’s defense circle on the sea is small, and, therefore, US fleets will be able to freely cruise over the Yellow Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea in the future. Military experts have warned that if the joint drill really takes place off the western coast of South Korea, Chinese airplanes and warships will very likely go all the way out to closely watch the war game maneuvers. Within such proximity on not-so-clearly-marked international waters, any move that is considered hostile to the other side can willy-nilly trigger a rash reaction, which might escalate into the unexpected or the unforeseen. One false move, one wrong interpretation, is all it would take for the best-planned exercises to go awry. Wang Jisi, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, says he is most worried about another collision crisis like the one over the South China Sea in 2001, when a Chinese fighter jet crashed into a US spy plane. The impact of a crisis on that scale would be tremendous, making any dispute over trade or the yuan’s value between the two in recent years pale in comparison. Anti-US sentiment will be re-ignited among Chinese people despite the recent affirmations of warmth in the relationship, and a significant fan following in China for the charismatic US president Barack Obama. With the growth of China’s economic power, the country will definitely extend its defense capability to the high seas. The US, far from trying to contain this assertiveness, should face up to the reality, and facilitate the Chinese navy to be peacefully integrated into the international system. This is China’s legitimate due, which it cannot be denied for long. By the same token, China needs to be patient. The island chains in the western Pacific cannot block China from entering the open waters. But the country should move forward one step at a time, to show its confidence and to emphasize its goal of keeping peace. The US has long been a naval superpower, and will be understandably uneasy about accepting the fact that China is a growing power and can no longer keep silent when US warships enter China’s sphere of influence. Since both sides lack experience of contact over the seas, the two countries should learn to get along with each other. First, the US must allow China space to explore. Second, the two navies need to increase exchanges to prevent further misunderstanding. Tension is mounting over the US-South Korean joint exercise. Beijing and Washington still have time, and leeway, to desist from moving toward a possible conflict on the Yellow Sea”.

(3) From a commentary titled “ Navies Play Crucial Role in Sino-US Ties” carried by the “People’s Daily” online on July 12: “ The navies of the United States and China will play a critical role in determining whether the two countries can avoid major conflict, said Wang Jisi, a Chinese expert in a report in the Global Times on Monday. This could be right. The two navies will not contribute to the increase of bilateral trade volume or the number of tourists, but it is easy for them to wreck bilateral ties. Many Chinese scholars hold the opinions that in the coming years, the western Pacific, a not too wide water area, will become a sensitive belt to test the relationships of China, world’s largest rising country, and the United States, the world’s largest hegemonic power. Major conflicts will most likely originate in this area. Over the past month or so, news that a U.S. aircraft carrier would enter the Yellow Sea to hold a military drill, which caused uproar in China, proved this. Bilateral trade vigor and the momentum of learning each other’s languages make the two countries sometimes look like allies. And the wisdom of the two governments has downplayed the ideological and institutional differences between two countries, but there is still strong distrust in military matters, in particular with regard to the navies. Despite this, neither of the two navies is ready to retreat from their great strategies. The United States wants to maintain its hegemony in the western Pacific while China’s navy extends eastward to “blue water.” With the extension of psychological territorial seas, following the growth of national power, the two countries are gradually contiguous to each other in the western Pacific. In fact, China has no mind to meet the challenge although Chinese do not like U.S. maritime hegemony. But could the United States understand China? The United States had confrontations or conflicts at sea with several great rising powers in the history, so it is applying its experience to China. Some think- tank reports in the United States show the country’s research and judgment on China, which over-exaggerates China’s strategy against the United States. China and the United States must gradually increase strategic mutual trust, so China needs to make the steady progress in its strategy transparent, while the United States, with an absolute advantage in strategy, naturally assumes greater responsibility in enhancing mutual trust. The United States should have a greater breadth of mind to accept the Chinese navy’s rights to widen its activity sphere, which is different from a challenge to the U.S. navy. While on China’s side, it needs to actively understand the United States and reduce provocation, which is China’s wisdom. Building strategic mutual trust is a slow process. China and the United States need to accelerate the establishment of a mechanism to avoid frictions. In a word, don’t let the curse of a “conflict between a rising power and a hegemonic power,” come true”.

(4) From an article titled “Exercise Restraint” carried by the “China Daily” on July 13: “The pending joint naval exercise by the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) on the Yellow Sea is gradually drawing widespread public ire in China. The drill is a threat to China’s security and risks escalating tensions in the Korean Peninsula. The joint military exercise is reportedly intended to deter the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the wake of the Cheonan incident. The ROK’s military made this point again July 6 when it announced that the drill, originally scheduled for June, would be postponed after likely UN action against the DPRK over its alleged sinking of the warship March 26. A presidential statement released by the UN Security Council on June 9 called for peaceful settlement of the dispute and the resumption of direct dialogue and negotiation between the DPRK and the ROK. Instead of resorting to any drastic moves, concerned parties must exercise restraint and calm in light of the UN statement. The public outcry in China will turn stronger if the US decides that its nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington is to participate in the exercise. The vessel’s likely presence, whose combat radius can reach the nation’s eastern coast, is nothing but a provocative action aimed at China’s doorstep. Washington’s persistent reconnaissance and surveillance on China’s mainland have long brewed indignation among the Chinese. Its joint naval exercise with the ROK would only fan more antagonistic sentiment against Uncle Sam. Admittedly, even Washington would not like to see such an outcome. The US move will be a new roadblock to the resumption of normal military ties between Beijing and Washington.”

(5) From an article titled “Modernising Navy For Self-Defence” by Gong Jianhua, an Associate Professor at the School of Politics and Public Administration, Guangdong Ocean University, carried by the “China Daily” on July 13: “ Reports in some foreign media outlets that Beijing considers South China Sea a part of its “core interests” have caused concern among some countries. This has happened because they have grossly misunderstood China’s actions. China is a large country with huge marine resources, but it does not have enough power to protect them. It is strengthening its marine strategy and its navy to protect its core national interests and not to pose a threat to any country. The People’s Republic of China has never infringed upon any country’s marine rights. On the contrary, other countries have violated its marine rights and interests repeatedly. 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. China’s sea-related problems are three-fold. First, China has very complicated and intractable problems with its waters-sharing neighbors. Longstanding disputes over China’s core interests in the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea come to the fore from time to time. The subjects of these disputes range from sovereign control of islands to delimitation of exclusive economic zones. For example, the dispute over the South China Sea involves conflicting claims of several parties in the region and interference of outside powers. Second, China has some inherent internal weaknesses and faces outside threats to its marine interests. Internally, the country is yet to build a sound naval force, and its ocean strategy lags far behind its economic and political strategies. Externally, it has lost valuable resources when other powers have seized its islands and exploited its waters. It faces threats to its sea lanes, too. 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. Third, these disputes are seriously depleting China’s strategic resources. For example, it is impossible to resolve the disputes over the South China Sea to the mutual benefit of all because of the huge differences in the political stances, sincerity and tactics of the other parties. China has to use an enormous part of its economic and diplomatic resources in its efforts to settle such issues with every country that has a stake in the region. Seas have played a very important role in the development of a country. And their importance has multiplied manifold in the era of globalization. In order to secure its maritime resources, waterways and national security, a country has to defend its sea rights and interests. The disputes over rights and interests in the East China Sea, Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea are the remnants of the history of invasions of China from across the seas and colonial rule. But China’s claims are based fully on historical facts. Its territorial sovereignty, strategic resources and trade routes comprise its core interests, and like any other country China will never compromise them. Rapid economic development and rising national strength have given China the chance to make it clear to the international community that it will never compromise its core interests. By adding the South China Sea to its core interests, China has shown its determination to secure its maritime resources and strategic waters. Its South China Sea strategy should thus be seen as a move to make up for its past ignorance about sea power and not as an aggressive expansionist measure. China’s foreign policy has always depended on a “soft, gentle” approach, and it has practiced the doctrine of “setting aside disputes and working for joint development” of the seas with neighboring countries. Its new naval development strategy is a continuation of this approach and aimed exclusively at “offshore defense”. While securing its core interests, China will continue to cultivate friendly ties with neighbors, increase regional cooperation and seek common development. It has no intention of posing a threat to other countries. But it has to change its backward marine strategy to suit the changing times. Its strategic initiatives should not be misunderstood by other countries – something that the West often does. The West, because of its tainted glasses, sees China’s military modernization as military expansionism with potential strategic aggression. What Western politicians and media do not understand is China’s need to safeguard its security to ensure sound economic and social development. It’s a matter of perspective that the West considers a dragon as a symbol of “evil” when in China it signifies “luck”. To safeguard its core interests, China should increase bilateral and multilateral exchanges with the countries that have a stake in the region, and actively publicize its commitment in building a “harmonious world”. It should clarify its stance and eliminate fuzzy statements; hold all-round talks with other countries and strengthen political, economic and military mutual trust to help them understand that it is modernizing its navy for self-defense and is committed to traveling the road of peace to secure its core interests.”

(6).From an article titled “Seoul says drill location undecided” by Li Jing in the “Global Times” of July 13: “South Korea is mulling moving the venue of a joint military drill with the US rather than in the Yellow Sea, local media reported Monday (July 12). Won Tae-jae, spokesman of the Ministry of Defense, said Monday in Seoul that South Korea and the US are “fine-tuning the timetable, scale and location” of the maneuvers, adding that both sides will soon announce the details. Arirang News cited a government source as saying Sunday that it is yet to be decided where the naval drill will take place, adding that it could be held off either coast, since the country is a peninsula. The drill, originally scheduled for June, was postponed until after the UN Security Council (US) issued a statement Friday on the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, condemning the attack but not identifying who was to blame. Beijing has strongly opposed the drill in which US carriers may engage because the location of the maneuver is close to its territorial waters. “Wherever the drill takes place, Washington has once again tested its influence in the region and strengthened its alliance with Seoul,” Yin Zhuo, a Chinese military strategist, told the Global Times. Jin Linbo, a deputy at the Asia-Pacific Research Center of the China Institute of International Studies, pointed out that after the US statement, almost all parties concerned have softened their tones. “Washington will decide the location of the drill after assessing its relations with Beijing, including those high-level military exchanges scheduled this year. If the US feels the need to pressure China, the drill may still take place in the Yellow Sea,” Jin said. Lee Su-seok, a senior analyst at the Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul, told the JoongAng Daily that South Korea needs to work harder to avoid political disputes with China. “You can give China some options, like inviting Chinese officials to view the drill or keeping them updated about the drill’s progress and activities to some degree,” he said. The Chosun Ilbo reported Monday that the White House, the Pentagon and the US State Department are weighing the pros and cons of allowing the aircraft carrier George Washington to engage in the drill. “The George Washington will not enter Korean waters for a few days,” Chosun Ilbo quoted a military source as saying, implying that it could remain in the open sea. Meanwhile, North Korean and US military representatives will meet Tuesday to discuss the Cheonan incident, the US-led UN Command in South Korea said Monday. The colonel-level meeting will discuss arrangements for future talks at general-level on the incident. It will be the first such meeting since the warship sank in March.”

( The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

3 views0 comments


bottom of page