U.S. and China Launch War Games in Pacific As Trade Crisis Gets Worse

The U.S. and China have both launched Pacific war games, seeking to show off their military might in a region where the two powers have competing interests.

The U.S. and ally South Korea conducted training Thursday as part of their annual joint "Foal Eagle" exercise intended to simulate an invasion of nuclear-armed North Korea. This year's installment, originally scheduled for February, began earlier this week. It was delayed because of South Korea's 2018 Winter Olympic Games and the rare inter-Korea peace talks that accompanied them. Despite these diplomatic overtures, the games went on, albeit in a reportedly lesser form.

Related: Why did Kim Jong Un go to China? This is North Korea's plan to "divide and conquer" U.S. and its top rival in Asia

Despite the Pentagon having described the drills as in "the same scale, scope and duration" as previous years, the 2018 edition kicked off without the so-called "strategic assets" that North Korea considered provocative, as The Diplomat reported. These include the nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines and U.S. nuclear bombers. A massive, D-Day-like landing operation scheduled for Thursday was canceled due to poor weather conditions.

The maneuvers are set to last about a month, half as long as in previous years, and run concurrently with the "Key Resolve" combat computer simulation and "Focused Passage" mass evacuation exercise in mid-April. Unlike previous years, the media has not been invited to attend, and North Korea's own ultranationalist state-run outlets have been uncharacteristically quiet over the drills.

South Korean marines march during a military exercise as a part of the annual joint military training called Foal Eagle between South Korea and the U.S. in Pohang, South Korea, April 5, 2018. Despite Pentagon statements saying the exercises would be similar to other years, reports suggested they would last half as long and not include U.S. nuclear-powered and nuclear-capable assets. Kim Hong-ji/Reuters
South Korean marines take part in a U.S.-South Korea joint landing operation drill as a part of the two countries' annual military training called Foal Eagle, in Pohang, South Korea, April 2, 2017. This year's landing has been delayed due to bad weather. Kim Hong-ji/Reuters

Elsewhere in the vast and contested waters of the Pacific Ocean, China began its own military exercise on Thursday. In contrast to the allegedly scaled-down U.S. and South Korean drills, experts have commented on the unusually large formation of warships heading to the South China Sea. These vessels included China's first and only operational aircraft carrier, the Type 001 Liaoning. This would be the first time that the Liaoning, a refurbished Russian Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier, would participate in such exercises.

Citing military experts, ruling Chinese Communist Party newspaper The Global Times reported Tuesday that the ongoing exercises were intended to enhance Liaoning's mission in defending the country's interests in the South China Sea, where the U.S. and China are competing for control.

In the South China Sea, the Pentagon has boosted its military presence to challenge Beijing's alleged construction of militarized islands and extensive territorial claims. President Donald Trump has also signed a billion-dollar arms deal and travel agreement with Taiwan, an island ruled by the self-proclaimed successors of pre-communist China and claimed by Beijing as part of its own territory.

The drills were set to last through Wednesday, and they come at a time of heightened tensions between China and the U.S., which has recently imposed new tariffs in response to allegations that Beijing utilized unfair trade practices. China has brought a case against the U.S. to the World Trade Organization and has taken retaliatory measures, leading observers to fear a global trade war.

A satellite photo dated March 26, 2018 shows Chinese ships south of Hainan, China. These images obtained exclusively by Reuters confirm that naval exercises previously described as routine included an aircraft carrier group. Planet Labs/Reuters
The guided-missile destroyer Taizhou fires its close-in weapons system at simulated sea targets during a maritime training exercise with the People's Liberation Army Eastern Command in late March, 2018. Wen Zidong/China Military Online

At a regular press conference Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang criticized Trump for reportedly seeking an additional $100 billion in tariffs against China. He accused the U.S. of choosing "unilateralism and protectionism against multilateralism and free trade."

"The Commerce Ministry of China has made it clear that we are fully prepared to deal with any new measures the US may take, and we have in place detailed countermeasures," Lu said.

"We said before that, even though we will not be the ones to stir up trouble, we will never allow trouble to be brought to our doorstep," he added. "We will resolutely fight back. And we Chinese people always deliver what we promise."