Why US and China Simultaneously Held Military Exercises

From Nov. 11 to Nov. 14, the United States and South Korea held joint naval exercises in the waters off South Korea’s eastern coast. The exercises involved carrier battle groups of the USS Ronald Reagan, USS Theodore Roosevelt, and USS Nimitz, and is the first three-carrier exercise since 2007.

Around the same period, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Eastern Theater Command naval and air force troops carried out large-scale joint military exercises in the East China Sea. The timing, location, and scale of the PLA drill are very unusual.

Why it matters: The military exercises took place shortly after the conclusion of President Donald Trump and Xi Jinping’s meeting in Beijing. Trump frequently mentioned his good chemistry with Xi during his three days in China.

Our take:

  1. The timing and location of the U.S. and China military exercises give the impression that China is trying to challenge America. However, the military drills are not likely to be attempts at provocation by both countries given the friendly Sino-US relations and good understanding between Trump and Xi. The U.S. drills are likely aimed at sending a message to North Korea.
  2. Xi and Trump made statements in Beijing which suggest that both are on the same page regarding the North Korean issue. Trump later told reporters aboard Air Force One in Vietnam that Xi’s remarks about his commitment to denuclearize North Korea is, in fact, a “big statement” that didn’t get much attention.
  3. The PLA’s military exercise is also likely an attempt to appease Chinese nationalists who could be suspicious of Xi giving Trump a “state visit plus” treatment.
  4. Based on our observation, the Jiang Zemin faction incited confrontations with China’s neighboring countries in the lead up to Xi taking office and during his first term to undermine his administration. The Senkaku Islands dispute and the Scarborough Shoal standoff are examples of Jiang faction activity. Most of these confrontations were later resolved through U.S. pressure.