On North Korea and More, China Flexes Its Muscles

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Charles Oki / U.S. Navy / Getty Images

The aircraft carrier U.S.S. George Washington arrives in Pusan, South Korea, to take part in joint military exercises east of the Korean peninsula starting July 25, 2010

On Sunday, 20 U.S. and South Korean ships, more than 100 aircraft and some 8,000 personnel will take part in a four-day series of war games in waters off the Korean peninsula. There's little ambiguity about the purpose of these exercises, which are taking place in the shadow of a hostile North Korea that's allegedly responsible for the March sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean warship. "[The war games] are designed to send a clear message to North Korea that its aggressive behavior must stop," said U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at an American base outside Seoul on July 20. In turn, the North Koreans issued a statement decrying what they deemed "very dangerous saber-rattling."

But Pyongyang is not alone in voicing its discontent. In recent weeks, a growing chorus of protest has come from Beijing, stoked in part by nationalist sentiment at home. A July 8 editorial in the Global Times, a Chinese state-run English-language newspaper, said the exercises could be interpreted as "a direct threat to [Beijing's] territorial waters and coastline." China reportedly completed its own coastal-defense drill, dubbed "Warfare 2010," on July 20. Government officials, both civilian and military, have issued a series of statements expressing a thinly veiled opposition to the planned U.S.–South Korean mobilization and have warned against any interference in China's backyard. Earlier in June, tempers flared at a high-level regional defense summit in Singapore that was attended by Gates and counterparts from the Chinese top brass; American frustration with China's coddling of the North Koreans was met with rhetoric condemning U.S. meddling elsewhere in the region. An invitation for Gates to visit Beijing was rescinded.

China is North Korea's most important ally and trade partner, and Beijing went out of its way to soften a recent Security Council resolution that sought to punish Pyongyang for its supposed attack on the Cheonan that killed 46 South Korean sailors. Yet ultimately, experts say, current Chinese posturing is just the surface tension of a far greater and slower geopolitical shift. For decades along this rim of the Pacific, a de facto Pax Americana has reigned — U.S. bases and carrier groups guaranteed security for a number of nations finding their feet after World War II, keeping sea lanes open and allowing trade to flourish. But that implicit hegemony is being steadily challenged by an ascendant China, charged by a feeling of historical grievance and an eagerness to assert itself on the global stage. "There's no question that the Chinese have a sense that they've been putting up with things for decades that have rankled them," says Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu. "Now, they are starting to push back."

China's new confidence can be seen in a range of arenas — from the economic clout gained from its vast foreign-exchange coffers to its ever lengthening diplomatic reach to its stubbornness on a host of global issues like climate change — but nowhere is this push-back more conspicuous than with the Chinese military, or People's Liberation Army (PLA). Though still a fraction of the U.S.'s own outlay, PLA spending has more than doubled in the past decade. In particular, Beijing has sought to beef up its blue-water navy, building a sophisticated submarine fleet, installing antiship ballistic missiles on a number of its vessels, improving its cybermilitary technologies and setting up a string of listening posts from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean. The keel of the first PLA navy aircraft carrier will be laid this year. "This new suite of Chinese capabilities has no other purpose than to neutralize the U.S. presence in the Western Pacific," says Andrew Shearer, director of studies at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, Australia. "China wants to maximize its power in Asia and, in the long term, squeeze out U.S. influence, island chain by island chain."

Analysts play down talk of a serious confrontation — the U.S. is still streaks ahead in its ability to project power across the planet and, with their economies so interlocked, disruptive conflict is in neither side's interest. But Washington can no longer take for granted its long-standing freedom to maneuver and deploy its forces in international waters, especially when it is perceived to threaten Chinese interests. Over the past couple of years, there has been a string of standoffs between U.S. surveillance vessels and Chinese ships in and around the South China Sea — a contested body of water that China considers almost as intrinsic to its sovereignty as Tibet or the island of Taiwan, despite the maritime claims of over a half-dozen other countries. Now, says Ralf Emmers, an expert on maritime security at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, "China's increasing power is forcing other countries in the region to prepare for a scenario of Chinese dominance."

In the past year, regional powers such as India, Vietnam, Australia and even countries with U.S. bases such as Japan and South Korea have all taken significant measures to upgrade their navies; an Asia-Pacific arms race is on the cards. While the U.S. remains the pre-eminent force in the Pacific, Chinese officials are able to plan half a century down the line. "If it was up to the Navy, I don't think the U.S. would see any sense in conceding its hegemony in the future," says Roy of the East-West Center. "That would be the result only of a political decision." But, with American politics hobbled by recession, unemployment and wars in West Asia, it's no surprise that governments elsewhere may not be counting entirely on Washington's supremacy.

This shift to a more multipolar world, as the wonkish parlance goes, is not by itself a cause for gloom. The problem, say security analysts, is a lack of transparency on the part of the Chinese military. "Militaries in general are very opaque organizations, but the PLA is even more so. No one knows its intentions," says Emmers. "Quite a bit of work is needed for [the Pentagon and PLA] literally to get to know each other."

Even with healthier dialogue, some suggest a deeper ideological impasse. The success of China's authoritarian capitalist model, whose influence has spread to the shores of Africa and Latin America, has led to many commentators prophesying a new "Beijing Consensus" toppling the global status quo. "The problem with China is that its international behavior is often not moderated by a spirit of democracy or transparency," says Shearer of the Lowy Institute. It's not the first time the U.S. has had to reckon with a world power whose values seem fundamentally different. As American troops train in the last remaining theater of the Cold War, the specter of a new and far more uncertain type of confrontation flickers nearby.