By JEREMY PAGE in Dandong, China and JAY SOLOMON and JULIAN E. BARNES in Washington
DANDONG, China—Beijing on Friday lodged its first official protest of a joint U.S.-South Korean military exercise planned for Sunday, even as the
aircraft carrier USS George Washington steamed toward the region.
North Korea also responded angrily. "The situation on the Korean peninsula is inching closer to the brink of war," the state controlled Korean Central
News Agency responded Friday to the maneuvers, which are set to take place in the Yellow Sea between the Koreas and northeastern China.
The strong talk was the latest fallout from North Korea's hour-long artillery attack of a South Korean island on Tuesday that killed four people. The
next day, the U.S. and South Korea said planned joint exercises would go ahead over the weekend, heightening fears in some quarters that already-tense
relations between North and South Korea—and their respective international protectors, China and the U.S.—could be heading for a showdown.
Yet China's outwardly defiant response belies a more delicate political reality: Beijing's continued support of North Korea's erratic, martial regime
is beginning to extract real costs. China's statement Friday included a face-saving formulation that appeared to open the door for a scenario China
has long sought to avert—a U.S. aircraft carrier, a potent symbol of U.S. military might, plying the edge of Chinese waters.
China's Foreign Ministry suggested it wouldn't escalate its protests against the naval exercises as long as they took place outside China's "exclusive
economic zone," a term of international maritime law for an area where countries enjoy mineral and fishing rights, generally 200 nautical miles from a
"We hold a consistent and clear-cut stance on the issue," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei was quoted as saying in a ministry statement. "We oppose
any party to take any military actions in our exclusive economic zone without permission."
The U.S. doesn't announce precise locations for such maneuvers for security reasons. But there are parts of the Yellow Sea, including those near South
Korea, that fall outside China's exclusive economic zone, giving the U.S. areas where it can conduct drills without incurring China's wrath.
China's stance appeared firmer in July, when officials said they opposed any military exercises in the entire Yellow Sea. Beijing protested so
vociferously that the U.S. and South Korea shifted planned maneuvers to the Sea of Japan, east of South Korea.
China has long frustrated U.S. efforts to bring its nuclear-armed neighbor to heel, fearing any radical change could sow chaos in the region and
potentially lead to a unified Korea with a U.S. military presence directly on its border. Beijing refused this week to blame North Korea for Tuesday's
attack. Privately, its officials maintain, the weekend's exercises could be a grave mistake that risk further provoking the North.
But current and former U.S. officials who have worked on North Korea said Friday that they saw China in a growing quandary in how to square its
support for Pyongyang with the regime's continued provocations.
Beijing has sought in recent months to deepen its economic and strategic relationship with North Korea, despite U.S. objections, arguing it would help
contain leader Kim Jong Il's nuclear work and military provocations. As Pyongyang has continued to challenge the international community, however,
China has been placed in an increasingly weakened position to protest U.S. military action.
"China is having a much harder time in defending its policy, but they only have themselves to blame," said Michael Green, who oversaw Asia policy for
the White House during George W. Bush's first term. "You talk to any Chinese official, and they're furious with the North Koreans."
Beijing is also facing renewed criticism from Chinese foreign-policy experts, journalists and Internet activists who question whether unqualified
support for North Korea is still in China's interests.
China's apparently softened stance on Yellow Sea exercises appears to demonstrate a concern that the North Korean crisis will overshadow a planned
trip to Washington in January by President Hu Jintao. It may also reflect an acknowledgment that China would be unlikely to prevent the U.S. and South
Korea from staging their drills following the week's attack, requiring a compromise to avoid appearing weak before an increasingly nationalist and
demanding Chinese public.
U.S. military officials insisted Friday that the exercise scheduled for this weekend shouldn't be interpreted as anything but an attempt to deter
North Korea from further attacks on the South.
"This exercise is not directed at China," said Capt. Darryn James, a Pentagon spokesman. "The purpose is to strengthen the deterrence against North
U.S. officials on Friday said the Obama administration continues to focus its diplomacy in Northeast Asia on gaining China's cooperation to exert more
pressure on North Korea.
China also made an attempt Friday to mediate among all sides in the crisis, with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking by telephone with
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, briefed on the phone conversation, said "the secretary encouraged
Beijing to send a clear message that North Korea's behavior is unacceptable."
Mr. Yang, who also talked with officials from North and South Korea, said he was "worried" by this week's developments, according to a statement from
the Foreign Ministry. He urged the two Koreas to stay calm and resolve their differences through negotiations, saying it was important to "control the
situation" and avoid further incidents, according to the ministry statement.
President Barack Obama is expected to speak with Hu Jintao on the North Korea crisis in the coming days, according to U.S. officials.
The White House declined to comment on China's response so far to the North Korea attack, noting that U.S. consultations with Beijing are ongoing.
"The president's conversation with Hu Jintao will be extremely important," said a senior U.S. official.
The U.S. has been planning a naval exercise in the Yellow Sea since July, when an expanded list of training events was announced in response to the
March sinking of the South Korean patrol ship Cheonan, which killed 46 sailors and was widely blamed on the North.
The July exercises also came after China had objected strongly to a speech by Mrs. Clinton in which she said that the U.S. had a national interest in
protecting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Ever since, China and the U.S. have been engaged in a tussle for influence in the region,
where many Southeast Asian nations that have territorial disputes with China are looking to beef up defense relations with the U.S.
Since July, military officials have acknowledged that they understand China's concerns with the exercises but have defended their intention to operate
in the Yellow Sea. "These exercises will take place in international waters," Pentagon spokesman Capt. James said. "We routinely operate in
international waters, east and west of the Republic of Korea."
"We have been completely transparent with China about our intent to conduct these exercise and their purpose," added a U.S. military official.
China has challenged U.S. vessels operating in what it considers its economic zone. In March 2009, Chinese vessels harassed the USNS Impeccable, a
U.S. vessel staffed with civilians from the military Sealift Command. The Impeccable was in international waters but within China's exclusive economic
The U.S. last conducted exercises in the Yellow Sea in October 2009. Those drills also involved the USS George Washington.
One high-level South Korean official said the maneuvers would be off South Korea's southwest coast, far from the disputed maritime border with North
With the negotiations between China and Russia, is it any wonder China would oppose any US presence near their country? I think we are headed to
something big, and it may just be devastating to all involved?
edit on 27-11-2010 by Whereweheaded because: (no reason given)