By B. Raman
Coinciding with the US-South Korea joint naval exercise from July 24 to 27,2010, in the Sea of Japan, a large-scale naval exercise was held by the Chinese Navy in the South China Sea. Wide publicity was given to it by the China Central Television (CCTV). The Chief of General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army Chen Bingde, the navy commander and other senior commanders of the People’s Liberation Army oversaw the exercise. The North China, East China and South China Sea Fleets participated in the exercise. While the CCTV telecast pictures of the exercise, it did not say where exactly in the South China Sea it was held.
The TV said in its accompanying commentary: “Chen Bingde stressed that (the military) should pay close attention to changes in the situation and tasks, and get well prepared for military conflicts.” According to the CCTV commentary, the exercise consisted of six parts two of which were long-range precision strikes and defence against jet fighters and missiles. The CCTV telecast on July 27 footage of the Nanjing Military Command testing a new long-range artillery rocket on land toward the Yellow Sea. It said it was the first time China had carried out such a large-scale long-range artillery rocket drill. Liu Mingjin, chief of staff of the artillery division, told the CCTV that the drill was intended to test the troop’s long-range striking precision.
According to the CCTV, the exercise took place under an electromagnetic environment meant to simulate realistic combat conditions. It added: “It is one of the drills in China’s naval history that involved comprehensive cooperation and included the launch of many missiles.” It added that the exercise was just one of a series of exercises the PLA undertook before and during the US-South Korea exercise in the Sea of Japan.
The “China Daily” quoted Mr.Li Jie, a researcher with the Chinese navy’s military academy, as saying that Beijing has shown it has the determination to protect its territory not only through diplomatic actions but also by demonstrating its military strength. He said: “If the bottom line were to be crossed, then China would firmly react. The actions further stress that the South China Sea is one of China’s core interests. The fact that the chief personally watched the performances implies that the region is seen as highly important, and the drills are considered vital.”
Mr.Li further said that the South China Sea issue has become more complicated due to the the involvement of the US and Japan and that the drill, taking place under an electromagnetic environment, had likely taken into consideration the advanced communication-jamming technologies of the US.
In a despatch of July 29, the Xinhua reported that simultaneously with the naval exercise of the PLA-Navy,an army unit based at an inland province in the Jinan Military Command ferried combat forces and arms to “a coastal city” in the Shandong province on July 27. Mr.Li Qinggong, deputy secretary-general of the China Council for National Security Policy Studies, has said he did not believe the Chinese exercises were directed at the US-ROK drill, because such preparations take a long time and the timing may be a coincidence
Code-named “Invincible Spirit,” the four-day joint US-South Korea naval and air exercises involved 20 ships, including the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington of the US Navy, submarines, 200 aircraft and 8,000 troops from the two nations. According to the Xinhua, the exercise included anti-submarine drills, naval live-fire exercises, aerial training and computer-based simulation exercises. It quoted the South Korean media as saying that it was the first in a series of similar joint exercises to be conducted in coming months, part of military “countermeasures” against North Korea. Apart from the routine annual exercises , which will take place between August 16 and 26, the two countries will also stage joint military drills in waters off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula in September, and will conduct similar drills every month till the end of this year, as a warning to North Korea.
The ships participating in “Invincible Spirit” kept out of the Yellow Sea in response to Chinese sensitivities, but the South Korean media has indicated that the September exercise would cover the Yellow Sea too in order to underline that the US and South Korea do not accept the Chinese contention that the Yellow Sea is China’s psychological territorial waters from which they should keep out. The Chinese claim that many past invasions of China took place via the Yellow Sea and that, because of this, the appearance of any foreign naval ship, particularly an aircraft-carrier, in the Yellow Sea could create psychological fears in the minds of the population of Beijing. Seoul’s Yonhap News Agency quoted a high-level ROK military officer as saying on July 29 that the US and South Korea will “hold a joint military exercise once every month until the end of the year”.
Simultanously, Mr.Hu Zhengyue, a Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister, is on a visit to North Korea amid speculation that North Korea is pressing China to agree to a joint China-North Korea naval exercise. However, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson has described the visit as “a normal exchange between the two foreign ministries.”
Amid the concerns over the US determination to counter Chinese maritime assertiveness, the debate on the need for the Chinese Navy to have one or more aircraft carriers has been revived. In an editorial, the “Global Times” published by the People’s daily group said on July 30,2010: “The recent war of words surrounding the deployment of the US aircraft carrier George Washington close to China’s waters has once again sparked debate on the symbolic and practical significance of the large naval vessel. How would an aircraft carrier change the dynamics of China’s rise and how would it affect the regional geopolitical landscape? The outcome depends on China’s overall aircraft carrier strategy. An aircraft carrier is a crucial element of a modern naval force. Currently there are 22 aircraft carriers in active service in nine countries. China is the only UN Security Council permanent member that does not have an aircraft carrier. The public strongly desires an aircraft carrier because of the prestige associated with one, the power it projects to the rest of the world and the sense of defensive security it provides. There is a lot of speculation about China’s aircraft carrier plan. Given a carrier’s incredible size, it could be wrongly perceived as Chinese military assertiveness, and may create unnecessary tension. In the South China Sea, for example, where tensions occasionally spill over, an aircraft carrier might help China achieve victory in small-scale clashes in disputed waters. However, the win might turn a relatively small dispute into long running hostility that destabilizes bilateral relationships. But on the high seas, an aircraft carrier could be an effective tool to maintain order, and it could win China respect from neighboring countries. The number of the aircraft carriers China hopes to posses should also be well pondered. Too small a fleet and it may be ineffective, but an oversized fleet will eat up too much of the defense budget. The best deployment of an aircraft carrier would be for effective deterrence and to strengthen China’s military power. A carrier could also provide a platform to launch industrial and technological upgrades. Domestically there is also opposition against building or acquiring aircraft carriers given the enormous cost and maintenance difficulties. The Chinese Government has kept tacit (silent) over its aircraft carrier strategy, though many signs suggest that they (aircraft carriers)are elements that would make the Chinese navy complete. A sound aircraft carrier strategy should be put in place to optimize its future functions.”