China this week again used the East China Sea as a setting for military
maneuvers and exercises that it knew would rattle the United States and its
allies. After recently calming Japanese concerns about rising tensions in this
area, China shut down all vessel traffic in a large zone off the coast of
Zhejiang as the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) conducted a series of live
The PLAN engages in such drills each year, and does so in waters considered
part of China's exclusive economic zone (EEZ). All ships, including US military
surveillance ships, are given fair warning to stay clear.
At the same time, because US Navy carriers do not frequent the
Yellow Sea for a variety of reasons, China was sending
messages in advance that "national interests could be damaged" if the US
proceeds to deploy a US carrier during a joint exercise with the South Korean
navy later this summer.
"Under current situations, relevant parties should exercise restraint and
refrain from doing things that may escalate tensions and harm the interests of
the countries in the region," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang.
Having this floating symbol of US military might deployed so close to China is
perceived by Beijing as more than a very unfriendly gesture on the part of the
US. Another US aircraft carrier has just passed through the Panama Canal and
will soon transit the Pacific Ocean - something else that Beijing must keep in
Simply put, seldom have so many warships been exercising all at once in the
Pacific. A large fleet of US and allied warships are engaged in the RIMPAC
exercise off Hawaii, and the Russians are conducting a very large exercise in
the western Pacific region.
Speculation swirled in the US and elsewhere about the possibility that the
PLAN would launch Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBM) - known as "carrier
killers" - during its East China Sea exercises just north of Taiwan.
Although photographs of the PLAN exercises have appeared, including numerous
so-called Type 022 Houbei fast attack craft (FAC) and some of FACs firing YJ-83
missiles, there has been no independent verification of an actual ASBM launch
by the PLAN in 2010. 
China vigorously denies any connection between its coastal defense exercise and
the US carrier. However, the Chinese have engaged in their own spirited
discussion about what is unfolding off their coastline, and many Chinese see a
"Though the Chinese government did not say anything about the drill, anybody
with common sense on military strategy will bet that they are related," said
Shi Yinhong, a senior expert on US studies at Beijing-based Renmin University
of China, according to a China Daily report.
Chen Hu, editor-in-chief of Xinhua's World Military magazine, attempted to prod
the PLAN into accepting the presence of a US aircraft carrier so close to China
as an unusual opportunity to conduct further drills using the US ship as a
hypothetical target. 
"Chinese naval activities and maritime claims in the Western Pacific have
become more assertive," said Tetsuo Kotani, a research fellow at the
Tokyo-based Ocean Policy Research Foundation. "The PLA naval exercise was an
attempt to check the expected US-ROK exercise in the Yellow Sea, especially the
participation of the USS George Washington. In other words, that shows
how much China is concerned about the US carrier based in Japan."
Kotani sees no reason why the US should refrain from sending its carrier to the
"It is totally legitimate under international law. Otherwise, the freedom of
action and strategic mobility of the US military would be severely undermined,'
said Kotani. "The US should be more assertive, hopefully with the Self-Defense
Force. The US and Japan should consider trilateral exercise with ROK, too."
As much as the increasing size and power of the PLAN is a concern for the
US-Japan alliance, the PLA's asymmetric warfare capabilities - such as
anti-ship ballistic missiles, anti-satellite attack capabilities, quieter
submarines, sophisticated mines, cyber and info attack capabilities -
constitute a much more serious concern.
"The introduction of those asymmetric warfare capabilities can destabilize the
balance of power in the region. So Japan needs to join the development of the
'AirSea Battle' concept to further support US forward presence," said Kotani.
The Japanese media's analysis of the situation, at the same time, is reflecting
the unease and growing anxiety of the Japanese people over China's
"saber-rattling" and attempts to fend off the US. The Chinese government seems
to take these attitudes in stride.
"Naval tensions in the region have been high since the March 26 sinking of the
South Korean corvette Cheonan , which has been blamed on a North
Korean torpedo attack," the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun declared this month.
"China has long considered the Yellow Sea to be its 'backyard' and the dispatch
of the aircraft carrier is being characterized as an 'attempt to invade the
Yellow Sea using the sinking as a pretext'," according to the Chinese global
affairs journal Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times). 
According to Yukie Yoshikawa, senior research fellow at the Edwin O Reischauer
Center for East Asian Studies in Washington, DC, the fact that the Japanese
government is remaining rather quiet about the PLAN exercise in the East China
Sea is a bit deceiving because both the Japanese government and Japanese people
are quite concerned about it.
"The Japanese view it in extension of a series of incidents involving Chinese
ships which invaded the Japanese EEZ in April and May," said Yoshikawa. "Since
then, the Japanese understand that China is willing to expand its control so as
to be able to access the Pacific. Japan happens to be in between which will be
a growing concern."
By the way, when Qin made his remarks about the need for restraint, he said
nothing about the fact that two PLAN warships from the North China Sea Fleet
had once again passed close to Okinawa on their way to the Pacific in early
While the PLAN drill is a regularly scheduled event, this year it has happened
at the exact time when the US and Japan may be close to resolving the bitter
and lengthy argument over the future of the Futenma military base on Okinawa.
China may be exploiting the instability of US-Japan relations, and even
experimenting to see how far it can go before US and Japan will respond.
"The US and Japan should show China that it has gone far enough and needs to
back off. In that sense, terminating the current stalemate was one good sign,
and announcing a joint exercise with Korea, though postponed, was another,"
said Yoshikawa. "But the US should do more, and anything that demonstrates that
the US is still committed to the security of Northeast Asia is necessary,
including proceeding with the deployment of a US carrier in the joint exercise
Yoshikawa also recommends that military-to-military exchanges between the US
and China "should be resumed, more seriously, in order to not escalate the
situation any further".
In terms of the US military posture in the western Pacific, Yoshikawa supports
the status quo.
"The US should be in the picture, since all the neighboring countries have
designed and planned their defense structures under the assumption that the US
would be stationed in Japan, the ROK," said Yoshikawa. "In order for the US
military presence to fade, Japan needs to enhance its military capabilities
that are now designed to rely on the US, while discussing arms reduction with
China, the ROK, and ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations], and
making collective agreements on sea-lane defense between Japan and the Middle
East. As far as none of this is happening, the US needs to stay."
At the same time, mounting concerns in Japan over China's activities and recent
behavior should not be misunderstood as somehow transforming China into some
sort of a direct threat to Japan in the eyes of the Japanese.
"The reality is that while Japan cannot overtly say China is a threat because
Japan already depends heavily on China economically, Japan has not given enough
serious thought to China, nor its future and its military ambitions," said
Yoshikawa. "This concern will be expressed more indirectly as 'the US military
role is and continues to be important to Japan', rather than saying 'China is a
threat, so we need to team with the US to contain China'. This is a lesson from
former Japanese prime minister Junichiri Koizumi's time in office."
Russia's presence cannot go unmentioned. Despite the intense focus on the PLAN
and the whereabouts of a US aircraft carrier, Russia quietly assembled several
warships in the East Sea/Sea of Japan from its North, Black Sea and Pacific fleets in
order to conduct its largest naval exercise in many years. With Russian
President Dmitry Medvedev looking on, Russian battle cruisers and destroyers
that had arrived in the region weeks earlier fired anti-ship missiles over long
distances, and performed other anti-carrier maneuvers in the Sea of Okhotsk
earlier this month.
In doing so, Russia is sending a strong signal to both China and Japan.
"It is hardly surprising that such exercises are conducted on the Pacific
theater of war, as this region is and will remain one of the most
conflict-prone areas for Russia in the next 20-30 years," said RIA Novosti
military commentator Ilya Kramnik. "Russian-Japanese disagreements over the
disputed South Kuril archipelago, called the 'Northern Territories' by Tokyo,
and Russia's proximity to a powerful China prompt Moscow to find new ways to
defend its Far East possessions in the event of a hypothetical conflict." 
Amid all the talk about exercises and China's rapidly improving naval
capabilities, the US Navy is raising questions about its own state of
readiness. Navy Times obtained a copy of the long-awaited report prepared by a
US Navy panel headed by retired Vice Admiral Phillip Balisle about the
questionable condition of some of the US Navy's Aegis-equipped warships.
The findings of the Balisle panel are considered a wakeup call in terms of the
US Navy's important and expanding anti-missile mission. In a nutshell, the
report identified numerous serious problems including a lack of adequately
trained and experienced personnel, degraded radar operations on numerous ships,
the presence of a failure to understand the importance of strong, reliable and
consistent system performance. 
This report will be required reading to many, given the fact that
AEGIS-equipped warships are vital components in the ballistic missile defense
networks now in place in the US, Japan and soon Europe. In light of the looming
ASBM threat in particular, the dependence of US aircraft carriers upon the
anti-missile screen provided by these ultra-high-tech warships is only going to