The Asia-Pacific waters are heating up with naval war games. Led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington, the United States, Japan and South Korea conducted an unprecedented naval exercise in the waters south of the Korean peninsula on June 21-22. Immediately after the U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral exercise, the U.S. and South Korean navies conducted a bilateral drill in the Yellow Sea on June 23-25.
Calling Japan and South Korea "cornerstone allies" of the United States in the Asia-Pacific, Admiral Samuel Locklear, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, called the trilateral exercise "a good opportunity for both Japan and South Korea to work more closely together with our help." Through these bilateral and trilateral naval exercises, Admiral Locklear expects that security cooperation between Japan and South Korea will be strengthened and the U.S. and its two key East Asian allies will form a stronger relationship "on the military side."
Beijing immediately voiced its strong opposition to the joint naval exercises. "China holds that the international community, especially Asia-Pacific countries," stated Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin, "must take moves to increase peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and in northern Asia, not to the contrary."
Analysts see the U.S.-Japan-South Korea June naval exercises as an implicit response to the Russian-Chinese naval exercises of April 22-27. The large-scale Chinese-Russian April war game in the Yellow Sea, including six Russian guided-missile cruisers and Udaloy-class destroyers and 16 Chinese destroyers and submarines, was the two navies' first bilateral exercise. "The exercise represents the unshakable determination to implement the two governments' strategic partnership," declared Gen. Chen Bingde, Chief of the General Staff of People's Liberation Army, "and promotes strategic coordination between the two militaries and strengthens the two naval forces' ability to jointly confront new regional threats."
Naval exercises often play a key role in diplomatic signaling. "These exercises," writes Stephen Blank of Jamestown Foundation, "appeared in the context of a growing frequency of exercises in Asia by Chinese and U.S.-Asian forces and amid the reorientation of U.S. forces to East Asia, a change that Beijing has publicly labeled as hostile. The Chinese military media in particular emphasizes the implicitly anti-American aspect of the Chinese-Russian exercise. Gen. Chen Bingde's remarks suggest the greater willingness of the Chinese military to take a hard line against the United States."
Tensions are rising not only in the Yellow Sea and Northeast Asia, but also in the South China Sea. On June 21, China's cabinet approved the establishment of a prefecture-level San Sha Authority to administrate virtually the entire 3.5-million-square-kilometer waters of South China Sea.
As China continues to modernize its navy at breakneck speed and claims its control over more than 90 percent of the South China Sea, the battle for disputed territorial waters is no longer just hot air, the South China Sea dispute has moved to the top of Asia's security agenda, with the militarization of the dispute continues apace.
From the Yellow Sea to the South China Sea, the Pacific Ocean off the mainland of Asia has been turned into a "Sea of Tensions." And as Ross Babbage, founder of Canberra-based Kokoda Foundation, points out, "China is investing in a whole raft of capabilities to undermine the U.S. presence in the Western and Central Pacific. It is a fundamental challenge to the U.S. in Asia."
The United States is pushing back. "Make no mistake," U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the Shangri-La Dialogue, the annual security conference in Singapore attended by civilian and military leaders from Asia-Pacific nations, "the United States military is rebalancing and bringing an enhanced capability development to this vital region." As part of the strategic pivot to Asia, Panetta announced at the 11th Shangri-La Dialogue on June 2 that the United States will deploy 60 percent of its warships in the Asia-Pacific, including six aircraft carriers and a majority of the U.S. navy's cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships and submarines.
The United States' renewed commitment to Asia-Pacific regional defense ties has won strong endorsement from regional nations, including those with a history of adversarial or distant relations with Washington.
However, as Washington is pushing ahead with a muscular realignment of its forces toward the Asia-Pacific region, Beijing is likely to be further antagonized. China's expansive military muscle and its long-term territorial ambitions and the United States' policy of "return to Asia" with a proactive leadership role have set the two great powers on a collision course in the Asia-Pacific waters.
Dr. Xiaoxiong Yi is the Director of Marietta College's China Program.