China gets the U.S. aircraft carrier off its shores that it previously managed to browbeat Washington to keep at bay. There is no more provocative symbol of naval power to Beijing. The Peoples’ Liberation Army is building a carrier but doesn’t have one in its fleet yet. The arrival of the USS George Washington and its battle fleet only serves to underline that.
The joint naval exercises that the U.S. and South Korea are conducting from Sunday in the Yellow Sea following North Korea’s deadly shelling of Yeonpyeong Island may spill over into the 200 mile exclusive economic zone that China claims in the Yellow Sea (and is asserting vigorously in the East China and South China Seas). The exercises will likely spill over the line that Pyongyang, if barely anyone else, recognizes as the maritime boundary in the Yellow Sea between the two Koreas. If they do, Pyongyang has promised a “sea of fire” in what it calls the West Sea of Korea. A display of U.S. naval prowess in retaliation would be the last thing Beijing would want to see at this point.
The military cartography is typically tortuous. Yeonpyeong and two other South Korean islands lie well to the North Korea side of the main part of Pyongyang’s demarcation line, though they lie in tiny enclaves that Pyongyang, bizarrely, recognizes as South Korean waters and which it connects with two narrow channels to undisputed South Korean waters. But the three islands lie on the South Korea side of the Northern Limit Line that the U.N. and most of the rest of the world recognizes as the maritime boundary between the two Koreas, and which is to the north of North Korea’s line. The disputed part of the Yellow Sea is plenty large enough for trouble, and gives Pyongyang a by-definition reason to say it is being attacked — and to fire back — if any foreign guns are fired in those waters, whether directed at it or not.
All of which will make policymakers in Beijing wonder even harder over the next few days if their long-standing unwavering support of the ever unpredictable Kim Jong Il’s regime is worth it. A tail can wag a dog only so often.
Their fear is not so much a flood of refugees should Kim’s dynastic regime collapse in chaos if Beijing withdrew its political and economic lifelines. It would be an inconvenience but a manageable humanitarian operation. Their bigger fear is of a pro-Washington government replacing Kim’s, either Seoul-led or under a U.N. mandate, and the possibility of the 25,000 U.S. military personel now in South Korea being deployed up to the Chinese border in an area that Beijing’s plan is to make into a economic tributary state; the pacification through prosperity strategy that it tends to deploy in troublesome quarters.
GIs, even GIs in blue hats, just a river’s width away from Liaoning and Jilin provinces would be an affront to a leadership in Beijing that is intent on making its mark as the region’s power. It would make a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Yellow Sea seem like a fraternal visit.