Friday, July 30, 2010



Coinciding with the US-South Korea joint naval exercise from July 24 to 27,2010, in the Sea of Japan, a large-scale naval exercise was held by the Chinese Navy in the South China Sea. Wide publicity was given to it by the China Central Television (CCTV). The Chief of General Staff of the People's Liberation Army Chen Bingde, the navy commander and other senior commanders of the People's Liberation Army oversaw the exercise. The North China, East China and South China Sea Fleets participated in the exercise. While the CCTV telecast pictures of the exercise, it did not say where exactly in the South China Sea it was held.

2.The TV said in its accompanying commentary: "Chen Bingde stressed that (the military) should pay close attention to changes in the situation and tasks, and get well prepared for military conflicts." According to the CCTV commentary, the exercise consisted of six parts two of which were long-range precision strikes and defence against jet fighters and missiles. The CCTV telecast on July 27 footage of the Nanjing Military Command testing a new long-range artillery rocket on land toward the Yellow Sea. It said it was the first time China had carried out such a large-scale long-range artillery rocket drill. Liu Mingjin, chief of staff of the artillery division, told the CCTV that the drill was intended to test the troop's long-range striking precision.

3. According to the CCTV, the exercise took place under an electromagnetic environment meant to simulate realistic combat conditions. It added: "It is one of the drills in China's naval history that involved comprehensive cooperation and included the launch of many missiles." It added that the exercise was just one of a series of exercises the PLA undertook before and during the US-South Korea exercise in the Sea of Japan.

4.The "China Daily" quoted Mr.Li Jie, a researcher with the Chinese navy's military academy, as saying that Beijing has shown it has the determination to protect its territory not only through diplomatic actions but also by demonstrating its military strength. He said: "If the bottom line were to be crossed, then China would firmly react. The actions further stress that the South China Sea is one of China's core interests. The fact that the chief personally watched the performances implies that the region is seen as highly important, and the drills are considered vital."

5.Mr.Li further said that the South China Sea issue has become more complicated due to the the involvement of the US and Japan and that the drill, taking place under an electromagnetic environment, had likely taken into consideration the advanced communication-jamming technologies of the US.

6.In a despatch of July 29, the Xinhua reported that that simultaneously with the naval exercise of the PLA-Navy,an army unit based at an inland province in the Jinan Military Command ferried combat forces and arms to "a coastal city" in the Shandong province on July 27. Mr.Li Qinggong, deputy secretary-general of the China Council for National Security Policy Studies, has said he did not believe the Chinese exercises were directed at the US-ROK drill, because such preparations take a long time and the timing may be a coincidence

7. Code-named "Invincible Spirit," the four-day joint US-South Korea naval and air exercises involved 20 ships, including the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington of the US Navy, submarines, 200 aircraft and 8,000 troops from the two nations. According to the Xinhua, the exercise included anti-submarine drills, naval live-fire exercises, aerial training and computer-based simulation exercises. It quoted the South Korean media as saying that it was the first in a series of similar joint exercises to be conducted in coming months, part of military "countermeasures" against North Korea. Apart from the routine annual exercises , which will take place between August 16 and 26, the two countries will also stage joint military drills in waters off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula in September, and will conduct similar drills every month till the end of this year, as a warning to North Korea.

8.The ships participating in “Invincible Spirit” kept out of the Yellow Sea in response to Chinese sensitivities, but the South Korean media has indicated that the September exercise would cover the Yellow Sea too in order to underline that the US and South Korea do not accept the Chinese contention that the Yellow Sea is China’s psychological territorial waters from which they should keep out. The Chinese claim that many past invasions of China took place via the Yellow Sea and that, because of this, the appearance of any foreign naval ship, particularly an aircraft-carrier, in the Yellow Sea could create psychological fears in the minds of the population of Beijing. Seoul's Yonhap News Agency quoted a high-level ROK military officer as saying on July 29 that the US and South Korea will "hold a joint military exercise once every month until the end of the year".

9.Simultanously, Mr.Hu Zhengyue, a Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister, is on a visit to North Korea amid speculation that North Korea is pressing China to agree to a joint China-North Korea naval exercise. However, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson has described the visit as "a normal exchange between the two foreign ministries."

10. Amid the concerns over the US determination to counter Chinese maritime assertiveness, the debate on the need for the Chinese Navy to have one or more aircraft carriers has been revived. In an editorial, the "Global Times" published by the People's daily group said on July 30,2010: "The recent war of words surrounding the deployment of the US aircraft carrier George Washington close to China's waters has once again sparked debate on the symbolic and practical significance of the large naval vessel. How would an aircraft carrier change the dynamics of China's rise and how would it affect the regional geopolitical landscape? The outcome depends on China's overall aircraft carrier strategy. An aircraft carrier is a crucial element of a modern naval force. Currently there are 22 aircraft carriers in active service in nine countries. China is the only UN Security Council permanent member that does not have an aircraft carrier. The public strongly desires an aircraft carrier because of the prestige associated with one, the power it projects to the rest of the world and the sense of defensive security it provides. There is a lot of speculation about China's aircraft carrier plan. Given a carrier's incredible size, it could be wrongly perceived as Chinese military assertiveness, and may create unnecessary tension. In the South China Sea, for example, where tensions occasionally spill over, an aircraft carrier might help China achieve victory in small-scale clashes in disputed waters. However, the win might turn a relatively small dispute into long running hostility that destabilizes bilateral relationships. But on the high seas, an aircraft carrier could be an effective tool to maintain order, and it could win China respect from neighboring countries. The number of the aircraft carriers China hopes to posses should also be well pondered. Too small a fleet and it may be ineffective, but an oversized fleet will eat up too much of the defense budget. The best deployment of an aircraft carrier would be for effective deterrence and to strengthen China's military power. A carrier could also provide a platform to launch industrial and technological upgrades. Domestically there is also opposition against building or acquiring aircraft carriers given the enormous cost and maintenance difficulties. The Chinese Government has kept tacit (silent) over its aircraft carrier strategy, though many signs suggest that they (aircraft carriers)are elements that would make the Chinese navy complete. A sound aircraft carrier strategy should be put in place to optimize its future functions." ( 30-7-10)

( The writer 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: )



" It is clear that military clashes would bring bad results to all countries in the region involved, but China will never waive its right to protect its core interest with military means."--- From a "Global Times" editorial of July 26,2010


After having adopted a soft policy towards China since coming to office in January 2009, the administration of President Barack Obama is showing signs of starting to articulate in public its concerns over the implications of the growth of the Chinese naval power and its likely impact on the freedom of navigation and maritime trade. The public articulation of the concerns of the Obama Administration in this regard were triggered off by China's ambivalence on the question of action against North Korea for allegedly sinking a South Korean naval ship in March and its strong statements in recent months on its rights in the South China Sea and its determination to play what Beijing looks upon as its rightful role in the Western Pacific.

2. Interestingly and intriguingly, the concerns of the Obama Administration over the ambivalent policies of China in this region and over the implications of the increasing maritime assertiveness of the Chinese Navy were voiced by two dignitaries of the Obama Administration, who recently visited New Delhi and Hanoi, thereby hinting that there was a triangular convergence of these concerns in the US, India and Vietnam. Does this presage the beginning of a thinking in the corridors of power in Washington on the likely benefits of a co-ordinated strategy by the US, India and Vietnam towards the growing assertiveness of the Chinese Navy?

3. That is the questioin that has started bothering some analysts in China. While they have so far refrained from naming India in this context, they have already named Vietnam and cautioned it not to be misled by professions of US friendship for that country.

4.The opening salvo in the articulation of the US concerns was fired by Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, during an official visit to India.He told Indian media persons on July 23,2010, that China's aggressive posturing over territorial claims in the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions was a matter of concern that the US shared with India. He was quoted by the Indian media as saying as follows: "China seems to be asserting itself more and more with respect to the kinds of territorial claims. They seem to be taking a much more aggressive approach to the near-sea areas recently....There is growing concern over it. In my perspective, we (the US) must work with India in this regard.In my recent interactions with its leadership, India too has expressed similar concerns." He gave the example of recent public statements by China about the US Navy operating in the Yellow Sea. Noting that the US navy was in the international waters, Mullen said despite such remarks by China, the US would continue to operate in the international waters there.

5.Admiral Mullen said further that the US believed China was shifting focus from land-centric to air and maritime capabilities. "Fairly recently I have gone from being curious about where China is headed to being concerned about it. One of the characteristics that does not exist as far as China appears militarily is transparency. In fact, there is opaqueness to it that we continue to really scratch our heads about from a military standpoint. We have virtually no relationship with the Chinese military. If we have such relationship, we can agree on and disagree on, and also we can learn from each other." He pointed out that the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions were critical to economic and trade activities and that stability in these two regions was absolutely vital.

6. The same day in her address to the Foreign Ministers of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) at Hanoi, Mrs.Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, said that resolving disputes over the South China Sea was "pivotal" to regional stability and suggested an international mechanism to solve the issue. "The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia's maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea," Mrs. Clinton said. According to the "China Daily",Washington has called for unfettered access to the area and accused Beijing of adopting an increasingly aggressive stance on the high seas.

7.While Beijing has not yet reacted to the remarks of Admiral Mullen in New Delhi, it reacted immediately and with virulence against the remarks of Mrs.Clinton--- thereby indicating that it possibly distrusts Vietnam more than it distrusts India. The Chinese Foreign Minister,Mr.Yang Jiechi. who challenged the remarks of Mrs.Clinton at the Hanoi ARF meeting, strongly opposed attempts to internationalise the South China Sea issue."What will be the consequences if this issue is turned into an international or multilateral one? It will only make matters worse and the resolution more difficult," Mr. Yang said and added:"International practices show that the best way to resolve such disputes is for countries concerned to have direct bilateral negotiations. "

8.Mr.Yang said in his rejoinder to Mrs.Clinton: "China has territorial disputes with a few ASEAN member countries. The South China Sea is currently a peaceful area with navigational freedom.Trade has been growing rapidly in this region and China has become the number one trading partner of many countries in the region.In my bilateral discussions with both ASEAN colleagues and others, they all say that there is no threat to regional peace and stability.It is not China but some other country that is "coercing" regional countries to take sides on the issue. Asia can solve its own problems without interference by outside countries. ASEAN is also not an appropriate forum to resolve the issue.China and some ASEAN nations have territorial and maritime rights disputes because we are neighbors. And those disputes shouldn't be viewed as ones between China and ASEAN as a whole just because the countries involved are ASEAN members.The Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea signed by China and ASEAN member countries in 2002 has played a good role in containing regional conflicts and will see high-level meetings when conditions are mature. In the declaration, the countries pledged to exercise restraint, and not to make it an international issue or multilateral issue.Channels of discussion are there, and they are open and smooth."

9. There is suspicion in China that Mrs.Clinton would not have made such a strong statement without the tacit concurrence of Hanoi. Mr.Su Hao, a researcher on Asia-Pacific studies with the Beijing-based China Foreign Affairs University, said there had been many "subtle changes" in the South China Sea issue in the past year, with countries including Vietnam becoming much tougher and Washington moving away from its previous low-profile tone. "I'm sure the US is the basic reason for the change - it is supporting the other sides," Su said and added: "During a recent visit to Vietnam, I told a Vietnamese officer with diplomatic background that our late leader Deng Xiaoping had said 'since we can't solve the South China Sea issue, we can leave it to the next generation which will be smarter." According to Mr. Su, the Vietnamese officer replied: "That is why we have to solve it now." Mr. Shi Zhan, an international studies researcher at China Foreign Affairs University, said the US is re-flexing its muscles in the South China Sea partly because of the resources in the area.

10.In an editorial under the title "American Shadow Over South China Sea" published on July 26, the "Global Times" of Beijing wrote: "Maintaining and playing up regional tensions are typical American ways of keeping a presence and causing interference in disputed areas.On Friday (July 23), US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed "concern" over navigation freedom and offered help in facilitating communication in the South China Sea. Are any of them a major concern in the region at the moment? No. The remarks of secretary Clinton were, of course, made after various US think tanks and media groups created much fanfare about potential clashes that would necessitate the step-in of the US government. Clinton's words clearly signaled America's strategic intentions in the South China Sea. The US will not put regional interests first. This is something that Southeast Asian countries have to bear in mind. Regional stability will be difficult to maintain if the countries concerned allow themselves to be controlled by the strategic guidance of the US. China and its neighboring countries have built a consultative mechanism to smooth out disagreements in the disputed water, and the communication channels are open. Conflicts, though they appear sporadically, are expected to be diminished with deeper understanding. Fully aware of the complexity of the region, China offered a solution of "shelving disagreement and joint development" to help foster trust and move the issue forward. China's objective is clear: to build strategic trust with neighboring countries under China's tolerance and patience. But that hard-earned trust is under threat with the US intention to meddle in the region, and force countries to choose between China and the US. With growing economic power, China and the US may encounter more clashes in China's adjacent sea. Few Southeast Asian countries would like to get in the middle of Sino-US tensions, but like many other regions, they are caught in a dilemma: economically close to China yet militarily guarded against China. Southeast Asian countries need to understand that any attempt to maximize gains by playing a balancing game between China and the US is risky. China's tolerance was sometimes taken advantage of by neighboring countries to seize unoccupied islands and grab natural resources under China's sovereignty. China's long-term strategic plan should never be taken as a weak stand. It is clear that military clashes would bring bad results to all countries in the region involved, but China will never waive its right to protect its core interest with military means. To maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea, the solution of "shelving disagreement and joint development" is the only option. "

11.In another editorial under the heading "US push in Vietnam suspicious", the "Global Times" wrote on July 28,2010: "In another sign that the US is "back to Southeast Asia," the US is approaching its old adversary in the region. During her two-day stay in Vietnam last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed economic cooperation, promised to solve the legacy of Agent Orange, and praised the unlimited potential of improved US-Vietnam relations. The message was clear when the US claimed, on Vietnamese soil, that it is in the US national interest to resolve South China Sea disputes. Embracing a former adversary for broader strategic gains is diplomacy the US is good at. It's true there is still conflict between China and Vietnam over disputed waters and natural resources. Both are hot-button issues that can trigger public resentment toward each other. It is also an obstacle to deepening bilateral ties between China and Vietnam. But from a historical perspective, the two countries have overcome the shadow of past military clashes for mutual benefit. China has been the largest trading partner of Vietnam for five consecutive years. Charting a similar reform road like China, Vietnam is benefiting from economic boom and political stability that is envied by neighboring coun-tries. The desire for mutual economic benefit surpasses the dispute over sea territories and it also lays a solid foundation for solving the dispute peacefully. Two weeks ago, the two sides finished a 1,300-kilometer long land boundary demarcation. Six years ago, the two sides inked the treaty over maritime boundary demarcation at Beibei Gulf, setting a reference point for solving issues over disputed waters in the South China Sea. Pressure to maintain an influence and guard against a rising China, the West is eager to cozy up to Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries. Meanwhile, the Western media likes to poison Sino-Vietnamese ties by painting China as "an elephant" which can easily trample on the interest of Vietnam.Vietnam should also be careful about not becoming a chess piece for the US as it pursues a broader regional agenda. China does not include Vietnam into its sphere of influence. The two countries are making an effort to build normal nation-to-nation relations. The two can find ways to solve disputes peacefully and avoid being taken advantage of by other countries. "

12. In bitter attacks on Mrs.Clinton's observations, some Chinese bloggers have accused her of ambushing China in its backyard. There is not yet a smilar reaction against the comments of Admiral Mullen, but the Chinese must be nursing a similar, but not yet openly expressed apprehension that there is another US ambush at New Delhi.

13. These developments call for a strategic naval dialogue between India and Vietnam in order to assess the seriousness of the Chinese maritime threats to the region and exchange views on the options available to India and Vietnam to protect their maritime interests. It would not be advisable to associate the US with the India-Vietnam dialogue on this subject. Any Indo-US dialogue should be kept separate in order not to create any fears in Beijing that India, the US and Vietnam are ganging up to prevent the emergence of China as a naval power. (30-7-10)

( The writer 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: )