US-Korean military drill revives painful memories

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 July, 2010, 12:00am

Whatever their stated purpose or the strength of the forces deployed, upcoming US-South Korean military exercises in the Yellow Sea will be greeted indignantly in Beijing because the presence of foreign warships so close to China's shores will revive painful memories of the country's invasion, political and military analysts say.

The war games would be precedent-setting, military analyst Andrei Chang said, since the last time foreign warships staged a show of force in the Yellow Sea was during the Sino-Japanese war in 1894.

Even though South Korea insists the drills are aimed at North Korea - which Seoul accuses of sinking one of its warships in March with the loss of 46 lives - Chang, editor-in-chief of the Canada-based Kanwa Defence Review, noted that US ships taking part would be armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles within whose range would lie Chinese cities including Beijing and Tianjin .

China has voiced strong opposition to the exercises, mindful perhaps of demands from its own public to speak out. While South Korea and the US have insisted all along that the exercises would go ahead, on Thursday Seoul's deputy defence minister, Chang Soo-man, said the exercises would be in two stages, with the first in the East Sea, or Sea of Japan, on the other side of the Korean Peninsula.

He also confirmed US aircraft carrier the USS George Washington, would only take part in the East Sea component of the exercise. A date for the Yellow Sea exercises, which had been expected this month, has not been set.

The minister appeared to suggest the decision not to include the aircraft carrier in the Yellow Sea drills would mollify China. Shi Yinhong, a professor of international security at Renmin University who follows Korean affairs, agreed the decision on the carrier was designed to avoid upsetting Beijing.

The PLA this month staged live-fire naval exercises in the East China Sea, close to the Yellow Sea, in an apparent protest against the possible presence of a US aircraft carrier on its doorstep. Chang noted that, in the event of a foreign military attack on North Korea, it would be 'impossible for Beijing to be left alone' because most of North Korea's key infrastructure lies near its border with China.

Gao Haikuan, a Beijing-based regional security specialist, said the US participation in the Yellow Sea drills would inevitably damage Sino-US relations.

'The US should realise that such a military demonstration on our doorstep would not only stoke Chinese nationalist sentiment against America, but also set back the peaceful development of the Korean Peninsula,' he said.

The drill was reminiscent of the military confrontations between the US and the Soviet Union during the cold war and would only erode Beijing's trust in US President Barack Obama, Gao said.

Chang, the defence analyst, said: 'Besides its proximity to China, the Yellow Sea also symbolises the Chinese humiliations in the second opium war and the first Sino-Japanese war.'

Chinese historians say foreign warships invaded China from the Yellow Sea 88 times in the past 200 years. Among the most painful episodes were the second opium war from 1856 to 1860, and the first Sino-Japanese war from 1894 to 1895. In 1856, an eight-nation force led by Britain and France sailed to China via the Yellow Sea, marched on Beijing and burned down the Qing dynasty Old Summer Palace. In 1895, Japan occupied Taiwan after defeating the Qing dynasty's elite Beiyang Fleet in the Yellow Sea.

The planned Yellow Sea drill is intended by the US and South Korea as a show of unity against a belligerent North Korea. It has already been delayed since June after Beijing's repeated objections. 'Beijing has publicly condemned the joint operations five times over the past month. The domestic public outcry is stronger than it expected,' Shi said.

Chang believes Seoul has no intention of upsetting Beijing, but is acting out of a practical need to revise its battle plan for a possible invasion of North Korea, which was formulated in the 1980s and focused mainly on an attack by land. It paid little attention to North Korea's development of nuclear technology, Chang said. The North is believed to have enough plutonium for a handful of nuclear weapons, and the rockets to fire them.

Chang thinks Seoul is eager to use the Yellow Sea drill to formulate new naval operating strategies.

Shi said the tension caused by the Yellow Sea exercise could prompt Beijing to reconsider its current approach to foreign policy, which relied on forming strategic partnerships with other countries instead of, like the US, forging allies.

'Beijing is very isolated when dealing with such a challenge because we are alone,' he said. 'But I think in the long term, it's possible for China to focus on cultivating allies to further enhance our diplomatic relations, which might balance the threat from the US.'