U.S. Conducts Military Exercises, Increasing Pressure on China

As tensions between the United States and North Korea continue to run high, the United States seek Chinese action on its ally, North Korea.

On October 10th the United States flew two Air Force B-1B bombers and two F-15K fighters  from their base in Guam, over South Korean airspace. The bombers carried out air-to-ground missile drills in the Sea of Japan, before repeating the drill over the East China Sea.

The drills come as the Trump administration has continued to stress the importance of ending North Korean nuclear weapons and ballistic missile progress.

During President Trump’s address to the UN General Assembly in September, he called Kim Jong Un a “rocket man on a suicide mission” and that the U.S. would “totally destroy” North Korea in response to a North Korean attack.  North Korea responded by pledging that it will take the “highest level” action against the United States, alluding to another nuclear test to occur.

On September 3rd North Korea conducted its 6th nuclear test and earlier in August launched two missiles over Japanese air space.   North Korea has threatened to fire intermediate range ballistic missiles near Guam.

The United States has urged the Chinese government to rein in North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs, but Beijing has done little to persuade its problematic ally. As North Korea’s main trading partner, China argues that the sanctions on North Korea alone will not be effective, yet the nation has done little to assist in deterring its neighbor.

The UN recently banned four North Korean ships on October 5th from entering any ports globally for carrying coal from North Korea, including one vessel that also carried ammunition. The ships banned were the Comoros-flagged Petrel 8, St. Kitts and Nevis-flagged Hao Fan 6, North Korean-flagged Tong San 2 and Cambodia-flagged Jie Shun.

This ban was placed due to the violations of previously imposed sanctions, including sanctions on the exportation of coal, seafood, textiles, iron ore, North Korean guest workers, as well as a cap on oil imports.

While the air drills were occurring near China, simultaneously the USS Chafee (DDG 90), a guided-Missile destroyer conducted a “freedom of navigation” operation near islands claimed by China in the South China Sea while.

A “freedom of navigation” operation allows the United States to assert navigation and overflight rights,  consistent in the customary international law of the sea, in order to promote maritime stability.  The United States regularly conducts these operations in the South China Sea, undermining Chinese sovereignty claims.

China’s Defense Ministry called this particular operation a “provocation”, alleging it infringed on Chinese sovereignty, and sent a Type 054A guided missile frigate, a Z-8 helicopter likely equipped with surface search radar, and two J-11B fighter jets, which can be equipped with anti-ship missiles, to identify and confront the U.S. vessel.

The Chinese Defense Ministry in a statement said, “It is a critical stage for the development of the relationship between Chinese and American armies, and we demand the U.S. side earnestly take steps to correct its mistakes and inject positive energy into bilateral ties.”

The statement is an escalation from August, when a U.S. Navy destroyer crossed within 12 nautical miles of an Chinese-built island in the South China Sea. Chinese officials did not make a similar statement at that time.

12 nautical miles marks the internationally recognized territorial limits, sailing within these miles shows that a nation does not recognize territorial claims.

Entering in the South China Sea is not uncommon for the U.S. as it routinely navigates through the territory, however, with the U.S. putting pressure on China to act more toward North Korea this could potentially strain ties.

China claims a “nine dash line”  arranged in a half-circle near Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Malaysia; as well as all sea territory between the dashes including the Parcel and Spratly island chains.  The Paracel Islands is claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, while the Spratly Islands are additionally contested by the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited China from September 28th to 30th laying the ground work from President Trump to discuss North Korea as well as trade relations with the U.S.

Trump will be traveling to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines from November 3rd to the 14th to discuss North Korea’s growing nuclear threat and other issues. This will be his first visit to the region as president.