On Aug. 18, 2005, Russian and Chinese forces held their first-ever joint military exercise in Vladivostok in Russia's far east. Called "Peace Mission 2005," the exercise lasted eight days. The first stage involved naval vessels, the second featured an amphibious landing, and the third was a missile launch drill. In 1969 China and Russia exchanged fire after a border dispute and the two powers had been competing ever since. Their joint drill made South Korea, Japan and the U.S. sit up.
The most plausible explanation was that Russia and China were practicing dealing with an emergency on the Korean Peninsula. At the time, the Russian Air Force even deployed TU-22M3 Backfire and other strategic bombers equipped with cruise missiles capable of knocking out aircraft carriers. But South Korea and the U.S. did not protest against the drills or demand that they be called off, and Russia and China have been holding joint military drills ever since.
The Chinese military conducts drills that could generate even more controversy. One exercise is the crossing of the Apnok or Yalu River that marks the border with North Korea. In May 2008, some 200 Chinese military engineers were spotted conducting drills laying pontoon bridges on the river near Dandong. Military experts said the exercise simulated a Chinese occupation of North Korea in case of an emergency there. It was held right in front of our noses. In July 2004, Japanese media reported that Chinese troops conducted their first-ever mock crossing of the Apnok River. China apparently conducts these drills despite protests from North Korea.
But now China is terribly upset about military drills in the West Sea by South Korea and the U.S. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said last Thursday, "We firmly oppose foreign military vessels and planes conducting activities in the Yellow [West] Sea and China's coastal waters that undermine China's security interests." On Tuesday he said, "I made our position clear last week and the position is unequivocal."
In other words, China can hold whatever military exercises it wants but others cannot. The upcoming South Korea-U.S. exercise is not aimed at China but is being pursued as a response to North Korea's sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan. China must surely be aware of that.
The reticence the South Korean and U.S. militaries are showing is understandable but frustrating nonetheless. If they cave in to Chinese pressure and cancel or postpone the exercise, it could send the wrong message to North Korea and China. As South Korea's Foreign Ministry spokesman pointed out, military exercises are a matter of national sovereignty. If North Korea and China believe they can meddle in issues involving South Korea's sovereignty, it could lead to catastrophic consequences for the South.
Even quite small countries in Europe allow the Dalai Lama to visit despite loud protests from China. They are sending out a clear message that they will not tolerate any interference. That is how a country should protect its sovereignty.
By Yu Yong-won from the Chosun Ilbo's News Desk