Earlier this week, Seoul asked the US to delay joint military exercises with Japan until after the Winter Olympics, ostensibly to avoid provoking North Korea ahead of the 2018 Winter Games. The timing of the request is suspicious - having coincided with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s announcement that the US has offered to begin talks with the North “without preconditions." While State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert walked back Tillerson’s statement the next day, insisting the North cease its weapons tests before talks can proceed, it is possible such a delay - if undertaken - could be construed as an opening gambit.
US drills in the region have stopped, though it’s unclear whether the US will abide by South Korea’s request. However, the brief lull in the area was interrupted Thursday when local media reported that China has decided to hold military drills of its own.
According to the South China Morning Post, China is now conducting a live-fire exercise off the North Korean peninsula, and is expected to last for four days. In addition to citing security concerns, Beijing also criticized the US for pushing the region toward nuclear war.
The drill in the Bohai Sea started on Thursday afternoon and will last until 4 pm local time next Monday, according to a notice issued by the Liaoning Maritime Safety Administration.
Beijing cordoned off an area of some 276 square kilometers near Lushun in Liaoning province, an important naval base for the People’s Liberation Army’s North Sea Fleet, which is responsible for defending the Bohai and Yellow Seas off the Korean peninsula.
The scale of the drills as well as the exact number of ships participating remained unclear. China’s drills capped off two weeks of heavy military activity in the area. Last week, more than 40 warships from the Chinese Navy took part in a major exercise in the East China Sea, just days after the country’s Air Force had carried out similar high-level drills. Then the US and its allies held their drills earlier this week.
Meanwhile, Pyongyang said Thursday that a Trump administration plan to impose a naval blockade on North Korea, if implemented, would be “extremely dangerous” and “big step” toward nuclear war.
Moscow and Beijing have repeatedly advocated a “double freeze”solution to the current verbal standoff between the US and North Korea. As part of the Russia-China plan, the North would halt missile and nuclear programs in exchange for Washington dialing down its military drills in the region. Earlier this month, Moscow said it was ready to help facilitate talks between Washington and Pyongyang, with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stating that “North Korea wants to talk to the US about its own security assurances."
The PLA Navy’s guided-missile destroyers have carried out a series of live-fire drills in the Yellow Sea while the Air Force has stepped up its patrol and surveillance over the region.
Separately, on Monday, China and Russia started a simulated anti-missile exercise in Beijing. China’s defense ministry on Monday said the drills helped foster cooperation against threats from ballistic and cruise missiles in the region - ironically, the US and South Korea use similar excuses to justify their drills.