International ties

US military presence in the Yellow Sea

By Huang Xiangyang (
Updated: 2010-06-28 16:46
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In a terse news release, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) announced on Monday that it will conduct live ammunition exercises in the East China Sea from June 30 to July 5. No reason was given for this seemingly unusual military arrangement--the last time the East China Sea was turned into a shooting ranch was in March 1996, when the PLA conducted ballistic missile exercises by firing surface-to-surface rockets from the mainland to sea targets to deter then-Taiwan leader Lee Teng-hui from his political stunt of seeking the island's independence.

Anyone with basic knowledge on geopolitics and military strategy would get the message behind the timing of the announcement. It is definitely not total coincidence that such sensitive news is made public on the same day that a joint military drill by the US and South Korean navies is scheduled to start in the Yellow Sea, citing threats from North Korea.

But the Yellow Sea is no common place where a country can flex its muscles. It is historically China's front yard. In 1894 the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) fought a sea battle here with Japan in a vain attempt to retain the empire's fast-fading influence over the rest of Asia. For Chinese, the Yellow Sea has no less military significance to China's sovereignty and national security than the Gulf of Mexico has to the United States.

Despite repeated complaints from China, the Pentagon has shown no signs of refraining from testing the country's strategic bottom line by going ahead with the plan to show off its military force. With the nuclear-powered aircraft USS George Washington set to participate in the joint exercise, China's key cities such as Beijing and Tianjin, as well as parts of its economically prosperous eastern coast are exposed under direct military threat from US forces. Given that the Pentagon has a history of dropping "missed bombs" on a country's embassy, such worries are by no means baseless.

There is a Chinese saying that even a rabbit--meek and gentle though it may be--will fight back when cornered. It is justified that a wave of public outcry and vehement calls for tit-for-tat military arrangement has emerged in countless online chat rooms in response to the US military adventure at China's doorstep. We see the US ignoring Chinese security concerns as an act meant to cause humiliation. And the latest announcement of the firing practice, to some extent, helps assuage simmering sentiment.

Because of the US policy toward Taiwan, characterized by continuing arms sales to the island, which has hurt China's "core national interest," the PLA has put its military contact with the Pentagon on hold. The sense of enmity has not eased, although US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has "stated for the record that the United States does not consider China as an enemy but as a partner." This is because Chinese culture values action over words. The US military presence in the Yellow Sea regardless of China's concerns, in addition to its never-ending reconnaissance activities along China's coastline, only reinforces Chinese impression of Uncle Sam as a double dealer.

In 1996, the US sent two aircraft carriers near the Taiwan Straits--in the first act of American coercion against China in nearly four decades--to countermeasure Beijing's missile tests. It has been considered a provocative move to trample on China's dignity. Compared with the United States, China is still weak. But to emerge as a great nation in the world community, China has to stand up to the United States militarily, especially near its own shores.