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Rumblings in N-E Asia Raises Serious Questions

The sinking of the South Korean frigate, Cheonan, by a North Korean torpedo on March 26 has raised questions of shock waves far away from the site of incident. Having signaled that it may conduct a third nuclear weapons test at a time of its choosing, North Korea or Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has held out (July 24) physical response to the US-South Korea (POK) naval exercise in the Sea of Japan with nuclear weapons.

Nobody is taking DPRK’s nuclear threat seriously, and should not. It is a North Korean tactics of holding out maximum threat. But at the same time, North Korea’s nieghbours cannot help but take serious note of such outbursts from their unpredictable neighbor.

China is critical where North Korea is concerned. Pyongyang depends on Beijing for almost everything from energy to food and support in the international arena. Most of the countries involved in the region including the US believe China is sincerely trying to bring Pyongyang back to the six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear issue. On the other hand, it remains North Korea’s most vocal supporter.

As the Cheonan incident suggest, China does not want North Korea in a tight corner especially militarily. Is China afraid that if Pyongyang feels seriously threatened militarily it could precipitate a disastrous situation in the region? Or, does its strategy involve keeping an unpredictable regime which has reportedly acquired nuclear capability, as an asset for brinkmanship?

That is why China’s reaction to the Cheonan incident raises very pertinent questions that eventually extends beyond the immediate North East Asian region.

The sinking of the Cheonan raised serious questions and apprehension not only in South Korea, but also in Japan and down to South East Asia. Following the attempt to assassinate South Korean President Chun Doo-Hwan in Burma (Myanmar) in 1983, North Korea had restrained itself considerably at least in actions. In the Cheonan incident 46 South Korean sailors were killed.

China’s hectic diplomacy helped cool down international reaction to a great extent. The UN condemnation, greatly influenced by China and accepted by the US, Japan and South Korea, fell short of naming North Korea for the incident. American and experts from other countries examining the wreck of the ship concluded it went down to a torpedo attack.

China is yet to make public the result of their inspection. The reason is very clear.

The US is unsure how to deal with North Korea with China standing behind Pyongyang. The tension is now shifting from beyond North Korea to a China-US face off in the waters of the region.

The US and Seoul announced a large scale joint military exercise in the Yellow Sea in the aftermath of the Cheonan incident. The avowed reason was to deter North Korea from further escalating the situation by launching new attacks.

Apparently, China saw a more sinister meaning in the proposed US-South Korean exercise. While the date of this exercise was set vaguely in mid-July, Beijing responded with its own military exercise in the East China Sea from June 30 to July 05.

It was a live fire exercise involving ships, submarines, aircraft and helicopters, with emphasis on tracking and warships attacking various targets in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). China has been protesting against US naval vessels entering its EEZ’s for mapping and surveying activities that are seen as espionage related. While China cannot challenge the US activities as per international law and the UN laws of Seas to which is a signatory, it has its own perception on territorial issues.

While on the one hand Chinese top leaders repeatedly claim that China is a developing country, this argument is used only in financial, economic, trade and environmental issues where it can gain from such a position.

On the other hand, the Chinese military establishment and political attendants are highly assertive on territorial and foreign policy issues. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) suspended military-to-military contacts with the US last year following US agreement to supply $6.4 billion modern weapons to Taiwan. The Americans are concerned about this as military contacts are important to diffuse tensions and face off. A retired Chinese Admiral, Yan Yin told American interlocutors earlier this year that if there was a nuclear war it would be between China and the US in the region.

In the run up to the US-South Korean military exercise which started on July 25 for a first four-day phase in the Sea of Japan or the East Sea, the Chinese official media, military leaders like Gen. Ma Xiaotian (Chief spokesman of the PLA) and leading think tank experts opened up a concentrated exposition of criticism on the exercise, especially on US intentions. The central point was the Yellow Sea which China considers its waters of interests, and that past invasions came through the seas especially the Yellow Sea.

The military linked voices from China particularly pointed out that the US navy would be able to identify the channels used by Chinese submarines and ships to get to the blue waters. They had serious objection to the participation of US aircraft carrier US George Washington, one of the largest in the world, in this exercise. The presence of the US George Washington so close to China’s territorial waters and demonstrating some of its devastating military capabilities along with other ships and aircraft, could have negative psychological effect on the PLA fighters and even the people.

US President Barack Obama, whose China policy is a half-way house, appears to have pressed his appeasement button. The exercise was pulled out from the Yellow Sea to the Sea of Japan, East of the Korean peninsula. But that also has not satisfied the Chinese. This is the biggest ever US-South Korean military exercise comprising 8000 men, which signals that the US was very much engaged in the region militarily.

One important position was brought out by an article in the official China Daily of July 13. The article titled “Modernising Navy for self-defence” by Gong Jianhua of the Guangdong Ocean University defined the South China Sea as part of “Core interest” of China. Putting aside Gong’s arguments for a strong navy and claim on various territorial seas and islands, denoting the South China Sea, a major international shipping route and claimed partially by other countries adjacent to it, raises a new troubling scenario. “Core interest” means an interest that is non-negotiable. It is very well known such articles are not individual thoughts of the author but directed and endorsed at the Politburo level or that of the Central Military Commission (CMC), at least.

It is, therefore, not surprising that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was in Hanoi to attend the ARF and East Asia Summit, reacted sharply on the South China Sea issue. She made it clear that it was in US interest to keep this region and seas free for international traffic and neutral. It is a hard and no nonsense statement.

In the course of these developments where one tends to see the Chinese covering and abating the increasing threats from North Korea, some notable issues brought out by China’s official media require serious interpretations. These are China’s “Sovereign Waters”, “Waters of China’s Interests” and China’s “Psychological Territorial Seas”.

All the three are military ideological postulates. To think the Chinese military stands to attention at the civilian leadership’s command is unrealistic. In some ways the PLA’s voice is like that of the Pakistan army’s in some specific areas. There include border and territorial issues, and relations with the USA and Japan.

Of the three postulates, “Sovereign Waters” is understandable if it conforms to international laws. It, however, appears that the Chinese are trying to superimpose their (concocted) historical claims over international laws in their maritime territorial claims.

“Psychological territorial Waters” would threaten neighbouring countries from Japan and South Korea through the Taiwan Strait down to the Malacca Strait. China would impress that any activity in these waters would have to get permission from Beijing. The only way that China executes this policy is through naval, air and military power. There is enough evidence to suggest that it is well on its way to establish this command but for the US position.

“Waters of China’s interest” has no contours. It can be anywhere where China has an interest, and can be extended to coasts of Myanmar (Burma), the Indian Ocean off Sri Lanka, and the Indian Ocean extending to the African coast, Gulf of Aden, Strait of Hormuz and Pakistan.

A Chinese task force is now permanently deployed for anti piracy operation off the coast of Africa. The Indian Ocean, of course, is a water of China’s interest with over 70% of its energy imports transiting these routes. With China penetrating Africa even more deeply, cheap African minerals are already transiting these waters to China. Pakistan has given an open invitation, in Pak Navy Chief Noman Bashir’s words, for Chinese naval ships to use Pakistani ports.

In strategic terms, waters of interest would be waters that China would want to protect. To do that, it would have to work at naval and military network that the US has in different regions. The Chinese military establishment has been studying the US strategy of bases and deployment. Chinese views that China’s territorial sovereignty, strategic resources and trade routes comprise its core interests says China’s naval power projects incrementally with air power and army would parade into areas, waters and regions that comprise strategic and sovereign space of other states.

Though they are far from achieving the US power projection, they are ahead of their Asian counterparts. These theories and postulates make it clear that China is working to place permanent task force on both ends of the Indian Ocean with ships patrolling between the two ends.

It is evident that North Korea is one end of its gun boat diplomacy anchor. Pakistan is the other distant end. In between, they are working on other countries.

In the next decade the Indian Ocean is very likely to see intense maritime rivalry. The Indian Navy must think how it will deal with these developments.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent analyst based in New Delhi.Email;

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