Exclusive: Why Did U.S. Kowtow to Chinese Naval Ambitions?

by WILLIAM R. HAWKINS July 27, 2010
The long delayed joint U.S.-South Korean naval exercise (code-named “Invincible Spirit”) finally started July 25 and will run until July 28. The size of the allied force involved is impressive. Some 20 warships led by the nuclear aircraft carrier George Washington (pictured) are taking part, supported by Air Force units including F-22 Raptor fighters.
 
The Obama administration has halted production of the F-22, deciding to build only a fraction of these air superiority fighters that the Air Force originally wanted. Lockheed Martin claims that its “fifth generation” F-22 assures American air dominance for the next 40 years. But this is only true if the fleet is not overwhelmed by massive numbers of enemy aircraft, which it will be if only 187 are built. Both China and Russia are moving ahead with their advanced fighter programs, without any signs they will cap their production at a low level. Yet, whenever there is a need to show American power, it is the Raptors which are sent. But, this irony seems lost on the media.
 
The media has, however, noted how the current naval “show of force” has been weakened by the decision to hold the exercise in the Sea of Japan rather than in the Yellow Sea. When Admiral Robert Willard, head of Pacific Command, held a press conference in Seoul announcing the operation, he said “this is the first in a series of exercises that are intending to send a very specific signal to the North Koreans as a consequence of the Cheonan incident.” The South Korea warship Cheonan was sunk by a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine in March. Forty-six crewmen were killed. A focus of “Invincible Spirit”is anti-submarine warfare. However, the South Korea ship went down in the Yellow Sea on the other side of the Korean peninsula from where the maneuvers are taking place. Why not hold the drills where the North Koreans attacked?
 
The Washington Post gave the correct answer, “Facing vehement opposition from China, U.S. and South Korean officials decided to relocate the drills from the Yellow Sea, west of South Korea, to the Sea of Japan to the east.” Adm. Willard talked about possible future exercises in the West Sea (meaning the Yellow Sea, though this term was never used), but no date was given. And when asked whether the George Washington would take part in the western operations, he replied, “We’re not going to discuss the particulars of the follow on in the series of exercises.”
 
Foreign governments understand that the Obama administration is appeasing China in what has been since World War II the area of greatest U.S. strength, naval and air power.
 
The Singapore Straits Times reported,
 
A senior U.S. defence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, went as far as to say that while the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier George Washington would join the [current] exercise, there are no plans for it to enter the Yellow Sea for subsequent exercises this summer.
 
Such an assurance is a tacit recognition by the US that the Yellow Sea lays within China’s sphere of influence.
 
To claim and defend this sphere of influence, Beijing has warned Washington not to deploy any US aircraft carriers in the waters off its coast.
 
The paper even cited People’s Liberation Army Major-General Luo Yuan as saying in a TV interview that should the George Washington enter the Yellow Sea, the Chinese military would “welcome the opportunity to try out its anti-aircraft carrier skills, short of actually firing at the carrier.” Over the 4th of July weekend, the PLA Navy conducted live fire operations in the East China Sea, the gateway to the Yellow Sea, featuring their new fast attack missile boats and other anti-ship air and sea weapons. Their demonstration evidently had a deterrent effect on American decisions about where to deploy its forces.
 
The China Times of Taiwan also reported that “The United States has been forced to relocate its latest joint military exercise with South Korea from the Yellow Sea to the Sea of Japan after a strong protest from China.” It raised the specter of “a new generation of commanders of the People's Liberation Army” taking the lead in foreign policy. “The phenomenon could be sending the ominous signals that the PLA is running out of control,” warned the paper, which concluded, “the PLA's saber-rattling has signaled that China can no longer tolerate a U.S.-led security framework blocking its rise as a new power. These developments can lead to tension and conflict in the region, and Taiwan's government should be prepared for this new trend.”
 
Russia’s Pravada news service reported, “It was originally planned that the drills would be held in the Yellow Sea, where the Cheonan had sunk. China, the key ally of North Korea, did not like the idea….Washington and Seoul listened to Beijing and eventually decided to hold the event in the Sea of Japan.”
 
The Russian press also gave prominent mention to Pyongyang’s threats. "The army and the people of the People's Democratic Republic of Korea will launch their own holy war based on nuclear deterrence at any necessary moment to give battle to American imperialists and puppet forces of South Korea which deliberately push the situation towards the edge of war. This is nothing but an open provocation to strangle the republic with the use of arms," was the statement cited from North Korean authorities. However, Pravda also noted, “North Korea has been making threats of retaliation for years.”
 
Pyongyang has been deterred by superior U.S. military power from directly attacking American forces, but will this continue if Washington looks weak of will? With Chinese diplomatic support, the DPRK has moved ahead with its “nuclear deterrence” programs, conducting nuclear weapon tests and firing long-range missiles.
 
With an ailing Kim Jong Il preparing to transfer power to his son, there is an incentive in both Pyongyang and Beijing to take a harder line against anything that could endanger communist rule. Since the sinking of the Cheonan, China has come out from behind the “responsible stakeholder” curtain where it was supposedly willing to help contain North Korea. Beijing has clearly shown its intent to back the Kim regime to the hilt.
 
The current crisis is about more than Korea or the Yellow Sea. A July 26 editorial in the Chinese Communist Party publication Global Times attacked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent plea that disputes in the South China Sea be settled peacefully while keeping maritime navigation open. The editorial claimed this was just an example of “typical American ways of keeping a presence and causing interference in disputed areas.” The commentary took a dangerous turn at the end,
 
Southeast Asian countries need to understand any attempt to maximize gains by playing a balancing game between China and the US is risky.
China's tolerance was sometimes taken advantage of by neighboring countries to seize unoccupied islands and grab natural resources under China's sovereignty.
 
China's long-term strategic plan should never be taken as a weak stand. It is clear that military clashes would bring bad results to all countries in the region involved, but China will never waive its right to protect its core interest with military means.
 
Beijing’s claim that the South China Sea, the region’s major trade route, is “sovereign” territory is in direct contravention of international law. Turning a show of strength into a show of weakness by appeasing China as to where the U.S. Navy will sail in international waters undermines deterrence in a time of rising tensions. It could tempt Beijing to overreach itself in ways that could endanger the peace of Asia.
 
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former economics professor and Republican Congressional staff member.

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