The top American military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, says the United States will continue to conduct military exercises in the international waters of the Yellow Sea, in spite of strong objections from the Chinese government. The Pentagon confirmed last week that there will soon be joint U.S.-South Korean naval exercises in both the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan, to the east, in response to North Korea's sinking of a South Korean Navy ship earlier this year. Admiral Mullen arrived Tuesday to join the first ever joint meeting of the American and South Korean foreign and defense ministers.
China's foreign ministry spokesman has said U.S.-South Korean naval exercises in the Yellow Sea would raise tensions in the area and threaten Chinese vital interests, including its sovereignty, territorial integrity and economic development. Admiral Mullen told reporters on his aircraft that is not the goal of the maneuvers.
"Nobody, the United States and certainly those who live in the region, want to see any kind of conflict break out," he said.
The admiral echoed other U.S. officials who have said the exercises are a response to what he calls "completely unacceptable" North Korean behavior that is outside "international norms." He says the exercises are designed to improve capabilities and deter further North Korean aggression. And, the admiral says they will not be canceled because of China's concerns.
"The Yellow Sea, specifically, is an international body of water. And the United States always reserves the right to operate in those, in international waters. And certainly, I hear what the Chinese are saying with respect to that," he said. "But in fact we have exercised in the Yellow Sea for a long time and I fully expect that we'll do so in the future."
The Yellow Sea, also known as the West Sea, was the site of the sinking of the South Korean Naval vessel the Cheonan in March, and the deaths of the 46 sailors who were on board. An international investigation concluded that the ship was sunk by a North Korean torpedo, but North Korea has denied the charge.
At the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii, Northeast Asia analyst Denny Roy says the U.S.-South Korean decision to hold naval exercises in the area runs directly counter to China's world view. He says China's strong words about the planned exercises reflect increasing assertiveness about an issue its leaders see as extremely important to their country's future, ending U.S. military dominance in the Western Pacific and turning the area into a Chinese sphere of influence.
"I think ultimately the Chinese view of the Asia-Pacific region in which China is a great power doesn't have much room for the degree of American influence in that region that we see today," said Roy. "We may see ourselves on a collision course between Chinese perceived core interests and American perceived core interests. If the United States and China have a different interpretation as to what's to be permissible in a place where our spheres of influence in effect overlap, this not only is an issue that's not going to go away soon, but we may be seeing an intensification of it over the next few years."
Indeed, former Bush Administration official Stephen Yates says China cannot expect to impose its views on U.S. military activity in the Western Pacific, particularly considering that it is the only major supporter of the country creating the tension in the region - North Korea.
"China needs to see that there are strategic consequences for its support for North Korea. It doesn't really get a free pass in enabling North Korea economically and diplomatically and watering down sanctions and other kinds of efforts to punish North Korea for violating international agreements and upsetting the security environment in East Asia," said Yates. "And, it doesn't also get to dictate to our allies what they can or cannot do, in terms of supporting their sovereign territory and their rights."
Professor Clark Sorensen, chair of the Center for Korea Studies at the University of Washington, agrees, but he says the United States also has to be careful how it asserts its rights in the region.
"It's a big dilemma for the United States because, on the one hand, we want to avoid turning China into some kind of an enemy, but on the other hand, China has been facilitating North Korean behavior in ways that make it very difficult for the U.S. on the Korean Peninsula," said Sorensen.
Still, at the East-West Center, Roy says the United States and China have an interest in resolving their differences over regional security.
"Both sides do also have an equally strong interest in maintaining a constructive bilateral relationship," said Roy. "So one hopes that the overall consideration of the need for a constructive relationship acts as a moderating force on some of the arguments pushing toward more assertive activities in the bilateral relationship."
Admiral Mullen says that is why the United States wants to resume normal military relations with China, which the Chinese froze last year after the latest U.S. arms sale to Taiwan.
"I think that's very important ,in terms of our ability to understand each other, deal with the tough issues, agree in certain areas and agree to disagree in others, but at least having those conversations is really vital," he said.
China has given no indication it is ready to resume routine military relations and analysts say, if the U.S.-South Korean naval exercises proceed as expected, the prospect will likely be set back even further.