BEIJING — This weekend's arrival of a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Yellow Sea poses a dilemma for Beijing: Should it protest angrily and aggravate ties with Washington, or quietly accept the presence of a key symbol of American military pre-eminence off Chinese shores?
The USS George Washington, accompanied by escort ships, is to take part in military drills with South Korea following North Korea's shelling of a South Korean island Tuesday that was one of the most serious confrontations since the Korean War a half-century ago.
It's a scenario China has sought to prevent. Only four months ago, Chinese officials and military officers shrilly warned Washington against sending a carrier into the Yellow Sea for an earlier set of exercises. Some said it would escalate tensions after the sinking of a South Korean navy ship blamed on North Korea. Others went further, calling the carrier deployment a threat to Chinese security.
Beijing believes its objections worked. Although Washington never said why, no aircraft carrier sailed into the strategic Yellow Sea, which laps at several Chinese provinces and the Korean peninsula.
This time around, with outrage high over the shelling, the U.S. raising pressure on China to rein in wayward ally North Korea, and a Chinese-American summit in the works, the warship is coming, and Beijing is muffling any criticisms.
"One of the results of North Korea's most recent belligerence has been to make it more difficult for China to condemn U.S. naval deployments in the East China Sea," said Michael Richardson, a visiting research fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. "I think China must be quietly cursing North Korea under their breath."
China's response has so far been limited to expressing mild concern over the exercises. A Foreign Ministry spokesman on Friday reiterated Beijing's long-standing insistence that foreign navies obtain its permission before undertaking military operations inside China's exclusive economic zone, which extends 230 miles (370 kilometers) from its coast.
It wasn't clear where the drills were being held or if they would cross into the Chinese zone.
The statement also reiterated calls for calm and restraint but did not directly mention the Yellow Sea or the planned exercises.
State media have been virtually silent. An editorial in the nationalistic tabloid Global Times worried that a U.S. carrier would upset the delicate balance in the Yellow Sea, ignoring the fact that the George Washington has taken part in drills in those waters numerous times before.
North Korea, by contrast, warned Friday that the U.S.-South Korean military drills were pushing the peninsula to the "brink of war."
A more passive approach this time helps Beijing raise its credibility with Washington and trading partner South Korea, and puts North Korea on notice that its actions are wearing China's patience thin.
"The Chinese government is trying to send Pyongyang a signal that if they continue to be so provocative, China will just leave the North Koreans to themselves," said Zhu Feng, director of Peking University's Center for International and Strategic Studies.
Sending signals is likely to be as far as Beijing goes, however. China fears that tougher action – say cutting the food and fuel assistance Beijing supplies – would destabilize the isolated North Korean dictatorship, possibly leading to its collapse. That could send floods of refugees into northeastern China and result in a pro-U.S. government taking over in the North.
"What China should do is make the North Koreans feel that they have got to stop messing around," Zhu said.
China may also be mindful of its relations with key trading partner Seoul, strained by Beijing's reluctance to condemn Pyongyang over the March ship sinking. Raising a clamor over upcoming drills in the wake of a national tragedy would only further alienate South Korea.
Beijing's mild tone also shows its reluctance to spoil the atmosphere ahead of renewed exchanges with Washington. President Hu Jintao is scheduled to make a state visit to Washington in January hosted by President Barack Obama – replete with a state dinner and other formal trappings that President George W. Bush never gave the Chinese leader.
Before that Gen. Ma Xiaotian, one of the commanders who objected to the George Washington's deployment earlier this year, is due in Washington for defense consultations. Those talks are another step in restoring tattered defense ties, a key goal of the Obama administration.
Chinese fixations about aircraft carriers verge on the visceral. U.S. carriers often figure in Chinese media as a symbol of the American government's ability to project power around the world. The Chinese navy is building a carrier, and keeping U.S. ones out of China's waters is seen as rightful deference to its growing power.
The U.S. is worried about a key principle: the U.S. Navy's right to operate in international waters.
While China doesn't claim sovereignty over the entire Yellow Sea, it has become assertive about its maritime territorial claims and sensitive to U.S. Navy operations in surrounding waters. In the South China Sea, which China claims in its entirety, China has seized foreign fishing boats and harassed U.S. Navy surveillance ships.
In light of such trends, China's protests of the September drills virtually compelled the U.S. Navy to send the George Washington this time, said Alan Romberg of the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, who met with Chinese military commanders in the summer.
"The People's Liberation Army thinks it achieved an initial victory in keeping the U.S. from deploying the George Washington in that first exercise. That guarantees that the George Washington will go there at some point, probably sooner rather than later," Romberg said in an interview in September.
Even if China's reticence holds this time, Beijing is not likely to cede the U.S. Navy carte blanche to range throughout the Yellow Sea.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei has stated that China's stance on U.S. naval action in the Yellow Sea remains unchanged. The politically influential and increasingly vocal military is also likely to keep the pressure on the leadership to take a firm stand.
Any affront to Beijing's authority or intrusion into Chinese territorial waters would inflame the Chinese public and require a government response, said Fang Xiuyu, an analyst on Korean issues at Fudan University's Institute of International Studies in Shanghai.
"We hope that the U.S. can exert restraint and not cross that line," Fang said.
EDITOR'S NOTE – Christopher Bodeen has covered Chinese foreign policy in Beijing and Shanghai since 2000.