BEIJING // The United States and South Korea are expected to launch joint naval exercises in the Yellow Sea soon. They will follow similar recent military drills there by China. Analysts and media in the region say the duelling drills are yet another sign that a new Cold War is developing on the Korean peninsula. China's navy began its four-day manoeuvres in the Yellow Sea on Wednesday, a surprising undertaking because China conducted it earlier than originally planned and formally announced it. China almost never reveals its military drills in advance.
They were designed to upstage the five-day war games Washington and Seoul had planned to start yesterday. They were postponed because of bad weather. Tit-for-tat military manoeuvres by China and the United States have occurred frequently since the sinking of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in March that killed 46 sailors. An international investigation found the North responsible; Pyongyang denies it was involved.
"This is the beginning of a fundamental clash between China and the US," said Paik Hak-soon, a security analyst at the Sejong Institute, a think tank in Seoul. "This is not a war, but in nature it's tantamount to a war. "Even security analysts in Washington privately say that the US-South Korean joint naval drills are actually a message to China, not North Korea. Of course, the Chinese know this, too," Mr Paik said.
The Cheonan incident has brought Washington and Seoul even closer together. The United States has urged Beijing to stop supporting its ally. Beijing, however, responded by protecting North Korea when the UN tried to punish Pyongyang. China, a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council, watered down South Korea's effort to bring North Korea to the Security Council for sanctions over the sinking of the ship. As a result, the UN issued a fairly bland presidential statement. And while the attack was condemned, North Korea was not named.
In a show of force against North Korea, the United States and South Korea in July began engaging in massive monthly naval drills that included the use of a US aircraft carrier. China bristled. One of its generals warned that the carrier could become a "moving target" for the Chinese navy. China countered by conducting its own drills at least nine times since June. Departing from its usual practice of holding such exercises without informing its media, China broadcast the manoeuvres on state television.
China uses North Korea to neutralise US influence in East Asia. The US has military bases in South Korea and is seen by China as wanting to blunt its regional political and military ambitions. Pictures of a friendly meeting on August 27 between the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, and the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, sent an unmistakable signal that the two countries remain strong allies. Last week, the US imposed new sanctions on North Korea. In response, China sent its chief nuclear envoy, Wu Dawei, to Washington to argue for the easing of sanctions.
As tensions between China and the United States over North Korea escalate, media outlets in South Korea have begun worrying about whether the peninsula is becoming a proxy venue for the US and China to assert power in the region. For months, prominent South Korean political blogs and mainstream media have been filled with a debate over what some call a "new Cold War". On Friday, South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper said in a commentary that South Korea should end the Cold War-like status.
The debate has become so intense that even the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, was compelled to respond through his spokesperson, who last week said: "Over the past few days, concerns were raised that the US and South Korea will become an axis, while China and the North will become another, reviving a Cold War confrontation." The statement said "that such an interpretation is a misunderstanding".
Chinese media echoed the South Korean bloggers. The state-run Global Times on Wednesday said in a front-page story that now that the United States is withdrawing from Iraq, it "will likely look for a new enemy". "Who is the US going to deal with next?" the front-page headline read, naming China and Iran among the candidates. John Park, a senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace, is cautious. "The leaderships of both countries need to be vigilant to prevent tensions from escalating," he said.
Other analysts downplayed the concerns. "I do not see the situation heading into a possible conflict," said Kenneth Quinones, a former North Korea analyst at the US state department. Cai Jian, a security expert at Fudan University in Shanghai, said that the United States and China actually have the same goal in dampening North Korea's nuclear drive. "America's goal is also to bring North Korea to the negotiation table through sanctions. Its method is different from China's."