What’s China worried about? Clue lies in where it’s holding navy drills

Beijing’s concerns evident in the shift of its focus from South China Sea to the Yellow Sea

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 August, 2017, 1:53pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 August, 2017, 11:22pm

China has shifted the focus of its naval exercises from the South China Sea to the northeastern Yellow Sea amid simmering tensions over the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, military experts said.

“The tension in the South China Sea has eased as Sino-Philippines relations have improved,” said

Ni Lexiong, a Shanghai-based commentator on military affairs.

Despite its victory last year in a tribunal ruling on territorial claims in the disputed waterway, Manila was now more concerned with seeking greater economic cooperation with Beijing, he said.

Earlier this week, Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano announced that China had assured the Philippines it would not occupy any new territory in the South China Sea, under a “status quo” agreement brokered by Manila.

“But the northeast area is in danger, after US President Donald Trump said that [with regard to North Korea] America’s military is now ‘locked and loaded’” Ni said.

“If the US attacks North Korea, China will have a dilemma, because the two countries [China and North Korea] signed a Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance in 1961, under which Beijing promised to support Pyongyang in the event of it being attacked.”

Earlier this month, China’s navy conducted a four-day miliary exercise off the Korean peninsula in the Bohai and Yellow Sea areas. It involved scores of warships and submarines, as well as marines from the navy’s three fleets in the southern, eastern and northern coasts, and ground troops from the Northern Theatre Command. The live-fire exercise was the biggest ever staged in the area and saw the launch of dozens of different types of missiles, state media reported.

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A week earlier, in the run-up to the celebrations for the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army, the navy conducted a three-day exercise in the Yellow Sea. The drills took place to the west of the Korean Peninsula, in waters between Qingdao, in northeastern China’s Shandong province, and Lianyungang in eastern Jiangsu province.

Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said the switch in focus for military drills, from the South China Sea to the Yellow Sea, was China’s response to the series of joint exercises held since 2013 by the US, Japan and South Korea.

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“China wants to show off its naval might to the US, Japan and South Korea, and is warning them not to antagonise North Korea by staging so many joint drills,” Li said.

The frequency of exercises involving the US, Japan and South Korea off the Korean Peninsula has increased in response to Pyongyang’s accelerate missile launches and since South Korean president Moon Jae-in came to power in May.

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Despite Donald Trump praising Pyongyang for its decision to hold off on firing missiles at Guam, the US and South Korean militaries said they will go ahead with large-scale sea, land and air exercises later this month.

Beijing, meanwhile, is unlikely to let such military movements go ahead unchallenged, Li said.

“China wants to remind the US, Japan and South Korea not to [stage] their drills too close to China or North Korea, and not to breach the truce agreement of the Korean war,” Li said, adding that “Beijing also wants Kim Jung-un to rein in his provocative actions,” something it has so far been unable to do.

Pyongyang launched an intercontinental ballistic missile just days before China celebrated the PLA’s 90th anniversary.