The naval exercises the PLA has started in the waters between China and the Korean peninsula are routine annual ones. Just as are the ones the South Korean and U.S. Navies hold in the same waters, the latest of which start shortly, the day after the Chinese ones have ended. But both sets are only latest in a series of military exercises by both sides in the western Pacific this year and will do little to ratchet down the growing perception that the high seas have become an expanding touchpoint of tension between Beijing and Washington.
While the U.S. defense establishment has pointed up the PLA’s growing naval strength, particularly its submarine fleet, China has been playing up its territorial claims to the South China Sea as a core national interest. In July, Beijing took umbrage when the U.S. Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, addressed the issue at an ASEAN regional forum, her remarks being considered as “interference” though she called for no more than a peaceful resolution among all the claimants. There was more than a touch of symbolism when the Chinese submersible, the Jiaolong, set a depth-diving record earlier this year by going to the bottom of the South China Sea and laying a Chinese flag on the sea floor. Shades of Apollo astronauts planting the U.S. flag on the moon.
There is little doubt that Beijing is discomforted by the presence of U.S. Navy warships in waters anywhere near its coasts, and is wary of U.S. joint exercises not just longstanding ones with Japan and South Korea but more recently with Vietnam. The coming U.S.-South Korean naval exercises, which will include antisubmarine drills, are in part intended to send a warning to North Korea in the wake of the sinking of a South Korean corvette in March, allegedly by a North Korean torpedo. Beijing wants regional stability. It may be seeing matching gunboat diplomacy for gunboat diplomacy as the way to get it.