With the United States’ enhanced engagement and military cooperation with China’s regional adversaries – Japan and South Korea – military publication associated with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had warned the PLA to be on “high alert.”
In one of its most direct and blatant warnings, China’s military mouthpiece, the PLA Daily, cautioned against the increased frequency of military drills between the three countries in what China considers its own backyard. It goes on to warn that these drills could potentially jeopardize regional stability.
The warning comes when China’s principal adversary, the United States, has made swift inroads into the region to create an effective deterrence against North Korea’s burgeoning missile program. Traditional rivals Japan and South Korea have also been mending fences to combat that challenge and further military cooperation.
According to the PLA Daily article written by two researchers from the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Military Sciences, the alliance that the three nations are forging will increase conflict and tension in the area and significantly influence security.
It referred to current military collaboration between the countries, such as exercises, information sharing, cooperative weapons programs, and their aspirations for military expansion.
Although the PLA views this trilateral cooperation as a security threat, this US-led military cooperation has been pointed at containing what the three states together see as a provocation by North Korea.
For instance, a joint statement from a trilateral meeting between the United States, Japan, and the Republic of Korea read: “The US commitment to defend Japan and the ROK are ironclad and backed by the full range of capabilities, including nuclear, and reaffirmed the US commitment to strengthen extended deterrence with Japan and the ROK.”
The Chinese PLA has also stepped up military drills with other Asian countries, besides conducting exercises practicing an invasion of Taiwan.
Not just that, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy’s Shandong aircraft carrier group recently concluded its first far sea operations in the West Pacific, working alongside the Rocket Force, land-based aviation forces, and other surface combatants beyond the first island chain.
However, with tensions incrementally mounting in the wider Indo-Pacific region and especially in the East and South China Seas, the Chinese suspicion may be palpable. The latest PLA Daily warning came after the US, South Korea, and Japan conducted joint naval missile defense maneuvers targeting North Korean threats in April.
The Trilateral Cooperation Poses A Threat
The United States, South Korea, and Japan conducted joint naval drills off the Korean Peninsula in early April.
The two-day anti-submarine and rescue exercises, which featured ships from the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier group and naval destroyers from South Korea, the US, and Japan, got underway in international waters near Jeju Island in South Korea.
An official statement from the time revealed that the training was organized to strengthen the three nations’ abilities to counter undersea security threats presented by North Korea’s developing submarine-launched ballistic missiles and other assets. There was no mention of China or the PLA during these drills.
Later that month, the United States, Japan, and South Korea conducted a joint missile defense exercise to counter North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal.
The drills were conducted off South Korea’s eastern coast and focused on developing techniques for seeing, tracking, and exchanging knowledge about approaching North Korean ballistic missiles. The one-day naval drill involved an Aegis destroyer from each country.
The PLA Academic further warned that a trilateral intelligence-sharing network modeled after the Five Eyes, which consists of Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States, was reportedly the goal of the three countries.
“If the United States, Japan, and South Korea form an integrated alliance, it is likely to create bloc confrontation in Northeast Asia,” the PLA researchers wrote.
They warned that the US could eventually try to create an “Asia-Pacific version of NATO” based on its alliance with Japan and South Korea.
China has often accused the United States of erecting small anti-china cliques to limit the growth and influence of the country. The academics also made a case for a regional arms race due to this cooperation, which rides on the back of enhanced military spending and arms purchases in Japan and South Korea.
The PLA experts also highlighted the “dangerous” nuclear cooperation efforts after Washington and Seoul reached a historic agreement allowing the US to send nuclear-armed submarines to South Korea during President Yoon Suk-yeol’s visit to the US last month.
The PLA is not frequently ordered to be on “high alert,” though it did so in the past in reaction to the US stepping up military drills with other nations in the region.
Besides the military cooperation demonstrated by the US, Japan, and South Korea, another set of military drills may have unsettled the PLA. While no warning has been issued for this one, China has felt the discomfort.
India Has Arrived In China’s Backyard
Earlier this month, India arrived in China’s backyard, i.e., in the South China Sea, to conduct the first-ever India-ASEAN naval drills, which kicked off on May 2 and ended on May 8.
The India-ASEAN Maritime Exercise (AIME-23) sought to promote maritime cooperation and increase friendship, trust, and confidence between the ASEAN and Indian Navies.
The ASEAN grouping consists of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
The Indian Navy and the Republic of Singapore Navy jointly hosted the first AIME. The exercise’s sea phase took place in the South China Sea from May 7 to May 8, while the exercise’s harbor phase took place at Changi Naval Base from May 2 to May 4.
Nine ships, six aircraft, and more than 1,800 personnel from India and the ASEAN republics participated in the drill. The drills came amid China’s increasing aggression and assertiveness in the region, frequently flagged by ASEAN countries with overlapping territorial claims with Beijing in the South China Sea.
1/Yesterday a flotilla of #China maritime militia ships moving SE executed an unusual 90deg turn, spread out & began moving SW—on a course that would intriguingly lead them directly into the #ASEAN–#India Maritime Exercise group headed NE from Singapore.
But wait… [?1/5] pic.twitter.com/Bs3aPxZ6CD
— Ray Powell (@GordianKnotRay) May 8, 2023
China reportedly tried to shadow these drills. Two Indian sources informed the media that on the last day of the drills, boats from a Chinese maritime militia approached a region in the South China Sea where the navies of India and ASEAN nations were conducting training.
The Chinese surveillance ship Xiang Yang Hong 10 and at least eight maritime militia ships, a front for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), proceeded in that direction, according to officials with knowledge of the situation.
Experts opined that it was unclear from the movement of the Chinese vessels whether they were observing the naval practice or making an incursion into Vietnam’s EEZ, where China is involved in a maritime conflict.
Beijing appeared to be employing the militia to intimidate and disrupt the naval practice, a local independent expert told the media.