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Expert Unexpert Advice

China Opposes South Korea/US Joint Exercise

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Game on.


China opposes any military acts in its exclusive economic zone without permission, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Friday, days before a joint military exercise between United States and Republic of Korea (ROK) on the Yellow Sea.

“We hold a consistent and clear-cut stance on the issue. We oppose any party to take any military acts in our exclusive economic zone without permission,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in a statement Friday.

Under the international law of the sea, an exclusive economic zone is a sea zone over which a state has special rights over the exploration and use of marine resources. It stretches from the seaward edge of the state’s territorial sea out to 200 nautical miles from its coast.

Hong’s comment came as the United States and the ROK planned to hold joint military exercises in waters off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula starting from Nov. 28.

Obviously China would prefer it if the US stayed away from Korea.  In the eventuality that the US and China ever go to war, the strategic benefit of US positioning in Korea would be immeasurable.

Although there’s obviously a lot of history between the Koreas, but I’ve always understood the balance as the acceptance of the strategic equilibrium between the US and China.  South Korea doesn’t do a whole lot without our OK, and the same goes for China and North Korea.  The fact that North Korea hasn’t rolled over South Korea shows Chinese general acceptance of somewhat superior US military might (imagine a Chinese proxy-state in Juarez Mexico).  The fact South Korea hasn’t rolled over North Korea is a sign we recognize the Chinese are strong enough to keep a buffer.  A lot of this may seem obvious, as it was the underlying narrative of the Korean War.

The Chinese like that Kim Jong Il is always doing crazy shit because it regularly tests American resolve to hold the current equilibrium.  That’s what makes responding to the North Korean provocation so complicated.

Ideally we could just roll through North Korea and be done with the matter, but the reality is China will only allow reunification if the resulting state supports China and opposes the United States actively.  Unless we’re ready for full-scale war with China, there’s a limit to how much we can do to North Korea.  The upside of this equation is that, provided we’re willing to stand up, there’s only so much China can do to South Korea unless they’re ready for full-scale war with us (which they almost certainly aren’t).

Something to remember is that the cost for the US losing South Korea is considerably lower than the cost of the Chinese losing North Korea.  If we lose South Korea, we lose our position on the Korean peninsula.  If they lose North Korea, Americans have direct access to the Chinese border.  This is why the Chinese so readily test our will to keep South Korea, while we don’t do very much to topple North Korea.

The issue is that problems can arise if our conceptualizations of each side’s relative strength are different.  If the Chinese think America’s declining economic dominance and the decline in the strength of America’s closest allies mean North Korea should gain power relative to South Korea and we don’t agree, it can come down to a game of chicken.  Problem with chicken is sometimes the cars crash.

Kim Jong Il’s been crowing today that the military exercise could instigate a war.  It might.  If it doesn’t and there are no concessions, the result will be a shift in momentum away from expanding Chinese power relative to the United States.  If there are concessions – which I think the Chinese expect – then that just reflect the reality that the US:China power ratio isn’t as one-sided as it was in the 1950’s.  Or there could be a war, which would probably mean an end to US presence on the Korean peninsula (as I sincerely doubt that there’s the political will for a full-scale war with China over the southern nub of the Korean peninsula).

This is serious hardball, and I guess we’re about to see the cut of Obama’s jib.  Best case scenario is we get Kim Jong Il to back down for nothing or next to nothing.


Written by updowndownup

November 26, 2010 at 9:43 pm

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