North Korea fired more than 100 artillery shells onto Yeonpyeong Island Tuesday, killing two South Korean marines and two civilians. In March, Seoul blamed North Korea for sinking South Korea’s Cheonan warship, killing 46 sailors.
The United States and South Korea prepared for war games between November 28 – December 1, 2010 as South Koreans demanded vengeance over a deadly North Korean artillery bombardment that has raised fears of more clashes between the bitter rivals. The North, meanwhile, worked to justify one of the worst attacks on South Korean territory since the 1950-53 Korean War. North Korea said civilians were used as a “human shield” around artillery positions and lashed out at what it called a “propaganda campaign” against Pyongyang. It claimed the United States orchestrated last Tuesday’s clash so that it could stage joint naval exercises in the Yellow Sea with the South that include a U.S. nuclear powered supercarrier — enraging the North and making neighboring China uneasy.
The artillery attack by North Korea against South Korea last week was no random act of senseless violence. It was a super power, China, using a proxy to make a strategic point. It was a calculated move to ramp up tension and challenge the status quo. The Chinese don’t want the Americans and their South Korea allies to hold joint anti-submarine maneuvers in the Yellow Sea (West Sea to the Koreans). The Chinese told the allies that back in July and they were ignored.
At the crux of the matter is the issue of maritime borders. China wants to create a “no-sail” zone in the China Sea. Under international law, a naval power can positions its warships in international waters 22 kilometers or 14 miles or 12 nautical miles from the low tide mark of the shoreline of a foreign country. The Chinese (and many other countries) want to extend this demarcation to 200 miles or the current limit of their “exclusive economic zone”. In the narrow Yellow Sea that would mean an aircraft carrier like USS George Washington would have to stay about 70 miles off the coast of Weihan, instead of the more aggressive 14 miles which is ‘legal’ under international law. Imagine the reaction of the US Navy if a Chinese aircraft carrier were to position itself 14 miles off the coast of Virginia or Manhattan. The Chinese have already announced that they do not want the US/Korean naval maneuvers to stray over the border of the “exclusive economic” zone.
This latest incident is just one in a long chain of events that have been percolating in the background. In September, the Chinese military announced that it had developed a “carrier-killer”. As described in The Global Times, a Chinese government-controlled newspaper, “China undoubtedly needs to build a highly credible anti-carrier capability. Not only does China need an anti-ship ballistic missile, but also other carrier-killing measures. Since US aircraft carrier battle groups in the Pacific constitute deterrence against China’s strategic interests, China has to possess the capacity to counterbalance.” By Chinese strategic interests, the article is referring to China’s stated objective of creating a “no sail zone” extending 1,000 miles from the Chinese coast. Such a “no sail” zone would push US naval power to the east of Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Phillipines, New Guinea and Indonesia, creating the equivalent of the “Chinese co-prosperity sphere”. It would only be a matter of time before resource-rich Australia would be included in the “no sail” zone.
US intelligence anticipated the Chinese announcement of the “carrier-killer” when it staged a show of force in early July by surfacing a new version of the Ohio-class nuclear submarine armed with 154 conventional Tomahawk cruise missiles around the periphery of the China Sea: the USS Michigan surfaced in Pusan, South Korea, the USS Ohio in Subic Bay, the Philippines, and the USS Florida in the Indian Ocean outpost of Diego Garcia (a Los Angeles class attack submarine surface unannounced on November 8th in Okinawa to the chagrin of the Japanese Government during its stand-off with the Chinese over a fishing boat). With this provocation, the US Navy was taunting the Chinese and making clear that it understood that the aircraft carrier was an obsolete weapon system. The admirals were acknowledging that the next war would be fought by submarines and submersible vessels and that they understood the Chinese threat from that corner. Since the US submarine fleet is declining due to exorbitant costs and the Chinese submarine fleet is surging in numbers and capability due to its labor cost advantage and the theft of Western technology ships, the July announcement of joint US/Korean anti-submarine maneuvers on November 28 – December 1, 2010 in the Yellow Sea was a shot across the bow of the Chinese Navy.
With these events as a backdrop, the North Korean artillery attack does not look like a random event. On the other hand, it looks like a carefully orchestrated move by the Chinese to pressure the Americans to back off to a new “no sail” zone demarcated by the “exclusive economic zone”. We will see what our Navy does over the next three days and whether or not this will prompt a proxy war in North Korea. What happened in Korea last week was no random act of mindless violence by a regime crying for attention. The Chinese gave the order.