On March 26, the South Korean navy vessel Cheonan, carrying 104 crewmembers, was sunk by a North Korean submarine while patrolling the waters off Baengnyeong Island in the Yellow Sea. Before tensions had died down, North Korea took the initiative and announced news about its new uranium enrichment facility. Then on Nov. 23 it launched an artillery attack on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong in the Yellow Sea, causing even more unrest in East Asia.
Since the sinking of the Cheonan, the US and South Korea have carried out numerous joint military exercises to strengthen their anti-submarine warfare capabilities in the Yellow Sea. They have also repeatedly declared that they would be sending aircraft carriers into the Yellow Sea.
Chinese officials protested against this nine times in one month. Apart from responding diplomatically, China also conducted a series of military exercises in the Yellow Sea.
General Ma Xiaotian (馬曉天), deputy chief of general staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) said on July 3 that China strongly opposed the US and South Korea conducting military exercises so close to Chinese waters. On Aug. 12, PLA Major General Luo Yuan (羅援) also said China would not take the lead in attacking others, but that it definitely would respond if attacked.
Even more worthy of attention, on Aug. 13, China National Radio had a report on the Chinese state-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp about how it would conduct test firings of the nation’s “major weaponry.”
Because of the Yellow Sea’s narrow and shallow waters, it is not suitable for US aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered super carriers to conduct anti--submarine warfare. If the US really wants to deter North Korea, the deeper waters east of the Korean Peninsula would be a much better place from which to operate and avoid conflict with China. So why is the US so intent on having their aircraft carriers enter the Yellow Sea?
The motives for this are complex, however, in terms of military strategy, these moves are to ensure that they can carry out long-term strategic intelligence gathering. For the past decade, there have been certain problems with the US’ intelligence gathering on China’s military development.
For example, in 2000, the US Department of Defense’s Office of Net Assessment warned that the lack of US intelligence about China meant Washington had no way of evaluating the possible ramifications of cross-strait conflict. In 2001, a group of US defense experts discovered flaws in US intelligence -gathering on China. In February last year, the then head of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Timothy Keating, said he was very worried about the lack of strategic information the US army had on China’s military development.
While the US keeps publicly announcing that the aircraft carriers they are sending are not aimed at China, Beijing is not stupid and knows the real meaning behind the US’ actions. However, the recent artillery attack by North Korea has undoubtedly provided the US with a good excuse to become further involved. On Nov. 24, the Washington Post published an article about how the US aims its diplomatic actions at China, instead of Pyongyang, when trying to contain North Korea. This clearly shows the US’ true motivations.
In reaction to the increasing tensions and military buildup by the US and the two Koreas, China proposed hosting another round of six-party nuclear talks. This, however, was rejected by South Korea and the US. In the future, if the US and South Korea are unable to employ diplomatic and political means to lower tensions, there are three possible ways military conflict could occur.