The Next Flashpoint?

China, the Republic of Korea, and the Yellow Sea

China’s Yellow Sea strategy has received less scholarly and policy attention than its approaches to the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Indian Ocean. However, China has significant economic and strategic reasons to prioritize its presence in these waters, including ongoing sovereignty disputes with the Republic of Korea (ROK). Chinese military exercises in the Yellow Sea have increased in recent years, with gray-zone activities playing a distant, secondary role to traditional military exercises. Moreover, China’s propaganda approach has been relatively limited and moderate, and thus there is still time to shape Beijing’s thinking and approach to these waters.

Policy Implications

  • While Chinese maritime ambitions are arguably more limited in the Yellow Sea than the South and East China Seas, China’s expanding military capabilities and subsequent uptick in military activity demand a greater policy focus there.
  • The U.S. should pursue a proactive hedging strategy toward China in the Yellow Sea. This could entail seeking cooperation with Beijing to address shared security threats, like North Korean WMD proliferation, while also preparing to respond strongly if China’s ambitions change or if it begins a more extensive coercive campaign for exclusive control of these waters.
  • The U.S.-ROK alliance should adapt to China’s increasing activities in the Yellow Sea by increasing joint monitoring, contingency planning, and consultations about the degree to which the alliance covers the protection of ROK forces, aircraft, and civilian vessels operating in the sea.