By Ralph A. Cossa
Would someone please provide the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) spokesman with a map! Over the last few months, since it was rumored, then denied, and then confirmed that the George Washington aircraft carrier would be involved in naval "show of force" maneuvers off the west coast of South Korea, PLA interlocutors have been proclaiming they "resolutely oppose any foreign military vessel and aircraft conducting activities in the Yellow Sea and China's coastal waters that undermine China’s security interests.”
China's coastal waters? While the George Washington's Yellow Sea area of operations has not yet been delineated, one assumes that it will operate in or adjacent to South Korean waters, somewhere in the general vicinity of the sinking of the ROK Navy's frigate Cheonan by a North Korean torpedo.
This will place it about 120 miles (195 kilometers) away from the closest Chinese landmass on the Shandong Peninsula and 175 miles (280 kilometers) from the closest city of any significance, Dalian. And this undermines China's security interests how?
These facts of geography notwithstanding, we now have PLA commentators warning of a possible "collision" between the U.S./ROK and PRC Navy ships, while another threatens "If someone harms me, I must harm them." Since when is operating in or near South Korean coastal waters ― the Yellow Sea touches the North and South Korean as well as the Chinese coast ― threaten China or do it harm?
Does the PLA now claim the ROK port of Incheon as part of its coastal waters? Do the U.S. (or ROK) ships have to get Chinese permission to sail in international waters significantly closer to the Korean mainland than to China? This is, of course, preposterous on the face of it.
The great irony is that it appears the U.S. initially had no plans of sending the George Washington into the Yellow Sea. In fact, Washington and Seoul were hoping that no major show of force would have been necessary at all, which is why they postponed plans for their naval maneuvers in lieu of first taking North Korea to the United Nations Security Council, the "responsible" way to send a message.
Unfortunately, it was Beijing's actions at the UNSC ― where it played Pyongyang's defense attorney despite an earlier pledge by Premier Wen Jiabao to scrutinize the results of the international investigation of the Cheonan attack in an "objective and fair manner" and "not protect anyone regarding the review" ― that made the exercises necessary, to counteract what Pyongyang was proclaiming to be its "great diplomatic victory" at the U.N.
Even after China's actions at the UNSC had made a U.S./ROK show of force necessary, the U.S. Navy's preference was to limit the George Washington's involvement to the initial joint exercise off the east coast of South Korea, as part of a significant show of force to underscore to Pyongyang that ROK and U.S. tolerance had its limits and that future acts of aggression would not be tolerated.
As Navy spokesmen explained at the time, the George Washington had just been in the Yellow Sea last fall and had other duties planned (including a visit to Southeast Asia).
Then came Chinese ultimatums warning the USN to stay out of its “coastal” ― in truth, international ― waters, followed by complaints from numerous friends and allies (especially in South Korea and Japan) bemoaning the "fact" that the U.S. seemed to be yielding ― kowtowing? ― to Chinese demands. This made a visit by the George Washington to the Yellow Sea essential, if the U.S. Navy, not to mention the time-honored principle of freedom of the seas, was to maintain any credibility in East Asia. This was an easily predictable response.
U.S. spokesmen have repeatedly asserted that the naval activity was not designed with China in mind; it was, and is, about sending North Korea a message. However, the PLA, by its outrageous warnings and pronouncements, has made it about China as well. The question is, why? Why has Chairman Mao's "let a hundred flowers bloom" campaign been transformed under President Hu Jintao into "let a hundred loose cannons blast"?
Those inclined to do mirror imaging posit that the PLA is just trying to create or magnify an enemy in order to increase its share of the Chinese defense budget or to keep civilians who might otherwise be "soft on defense" on the defensive themselves. Perhaps! But I see another motive as well. One clear result of the PLA accusations has been a clear rise in anti-American nationalistic feelings.
One only needs to read the China Daily or Global Times to see daily accusations of American insults and insensitivities to Chinese concerns. Could it be that Chinese fascination, especially among the youth, for President Obama and the American process of choosing its leaders, is seen as particularly threatening to the PLA and to the civilian leadership that is preparing for its own 2012 leadership "elections."
After all, one assumes that President (and Party Chairman) Hu could keep his loose cannons under control if need be ― after all, "the party controls the gun," or so the leadership continues to claim.
We saw a similar phenomenon 12 years ago when, during the similarly popular administration of President Bill Clinton, the PLA sent briefing teams out to China's campuses in the wake of the accidental NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, asserting that the accident was a deliberate attack and drumming up anti-U.S. feelings that resulted in our embassy being stoned and consulates attacked. Sounds like deja vu all over again.
Had the PLA wanted assurances that the ROK-U.S. exercises were not aimed at or threatening to China, vehicles exist to discuss this, including under the U.S.-Chinese Military Maritime Safety Agreement consultative mechanism.
Of course, that would have required the PLA to actually sit down and talk to the U.S. military, something it seems increasingly reluctant to do. Who knows, maybe if they resumed currently stalled military-to-military discussions, the U.S. Navy could have provided them some maps delineating everyone's coastal waters.
Ralph A. Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS (firstname.lastname@example.org), a Honolulu-based nonprofit research institute affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, and senior editor of Comparative Connections, a quarterly electronic journal (www.csis.org/pacfor). He can be reached at RACPacForum@cs.com.