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US & China play 'chicken' in the Yellow Sea
US & China play 'chicken' in the Yellow Sea|
C. Raja Mohan Posted: Wed Jun 30 2010, 16:16 hrs New Delhi:
A first rate crisis is brewing in and around the Korean Peninsula that may well come to a head this week. The escalation of military tensions in the Yellow Sea that separates the Korean Peninsula from the Chinese mainland is likely to take two pathways - one originating in Pyongyang and the other in Beijing - or both.
As Washington and Seoul respond with diplomatic and military measures to the alleged sinking of a South Korean naval ship, 'Cheonan', at the end of March by a small North Korean submarine, Pyongyang is promising more defiant action.
In a statement issued on Monday, the North Korean government referred to its "nuclear deterrent", a term that it had used before conducting nuclear tests in October 2006 and May 2009. This time around it went a step further to warn that it had a new approach to demonstrate its strategic capabilities.
China, in turn, has condemned the US-South Korea military exercises planned for this weekend in the Yellow Sea as a provocation.
According to reports from Beijing on Monday, the Chinese People's Liberation Army plans to conduct live ammunition exercises during June 30 to July 5 in roughly the period when US and South Korea will be conducting their joint anti-submarine exercises.
At the G-20 summit in Toronto over the weekend, President Barack Obama warned North Korean leadership against any irresponsible moves such as the conduct of another nuclear test. Obama was apparently "blunt" in telling the Chinese President Hu Jintao that Beijing must take the responsibility to restrain North Korea.
China, for long the protector of North Korea, has refused to criticise Pyongyang's recent actions.Meanwhile domestic pressures are mounting on the Chinese leadership to stand up against American military moves in the Yellow Sea that many nationalists see as Beijing's "front yard".
In a meeting with the South Korean President, Lee Myung-bak, Obama said he was standing "four square" behind South Korea in its gathering confrontation with the North. Obama also announced a decision to fast track the Congressional approval of a free trade agreement with South Korea and strengthen bilateral military alliance.
Days before the summit, Washington had suggested that the US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington might join the planned military exercises with South Korea later this week. The prospect of a rare American deployment of an aircraft carrier has angered Beijing.
As a columnist Huang Xiangyang wrote in the China Daily website on Monday, "Compared with the United States, China is still weak. But to emerge as a great nation in the world community, China has to stand up to the United States militarily, especially near its own shores."
With both the United States and China determined to stand by their respective partners in the Korean Peninsula, the big question is will the aircraft carrier enter the Yellow Sea or turn back before it gets there?
If America does not blink, can China afford to? If neither does, what form might the military escalation take? If there is some room for a face-saving de-escalation between Beijing and Washington, would Pyongyang try and prevent it?
These are the questions that most chancelleries in the Asia Pacific will be debating this week as the first major military confrontation between a rising China and a brooding America shapes up in the Yellow Sea.