Is the 7th Fleet getting seasick?

Overview – first installment in a series on regional security

BEIJING – Twice now, the U.S. Seventh Fleet has tried to dispatch the super-carrier USS George Washington, based in Yokosuka, into the Yellow Sea for joint naval exercises with the South Korean Navy along the western coast of the Korean Peninsula. Twice the Pentagon has backed off due to vehement opposition from Beijing as well as a smoldering foreign-policy dispute inside the White House.

The net effect, in the months since the mysterious sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan, is an uneasy standoff between the U.S.Western Pacific Command and the People’s Liberation Army.

At a tactical level, the saber-rattling is focused on whether the U.S. Navy can access the “green water” of the Yellow Sea, which is surrounded by northeast China and the Korean Peninsula (In navy jargon, oceans are “blue”, bays and seas are “green”, and rivers are “brown”.) The inland sea channels are important to both Koreas for their export trade, being far calmer than the rockier, storm-tossed Pacific coast.

During the Korean War a half-century ago, General Douglas MacArthur made his dramatic landing at Incheon, the port of Seoul, to launch the Allied counterattack against the capital of the North, Pyongyang. The two Korean militaries routinely skirmish in the same waters, but now only to test each other’s nerves and reactions. On both sides, local units are kept under strict control with clear rules of engagement.

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The strategic role of the Yellow Sea has shifted since those horrific all-out battles of the Korean War from armed confrontation toward the new objectives of curtailing nuclear proliferation and promoting regime change. These objectives are achievable by Washington and its East Asian allies only if a wedge could be driven between Beijing and Pyongyang.

Once as close as “lips and teeth” as Chinese propagandists were fond of saying during the Cold War, the China-DPRK relationship has drifted apart over the past three decades of ever-closer economic ties between Beijing and Washington. The six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear program provided the Bush administration with ample opportunity to widen gap between the erstwhile communist allies. Pyongyang’s obstinacy increased with its further isolation.

Under the Obama administration, however, the White House was being split by an ever-wider divergence over its two-track foreign policy. On one side, the CIA under Leon Panetta along with Treasury and Commerce, has tried to moderate potential conflicts between a debt-strapped America and its creditors in East Asia. Beijing, which has the largest holdings of Treasury notes., simply cannot be treated as an enemy. Under Obama’s national security policy, the “soft power” faction in the White House has tended to support multilateral talks toward easing tensions in East Asia and avoided offense to Beijing.

On the other side, the Pentagon has watched in alarm as its security alliances with Japan and South Korea began to be weaken over issues including the Asian allies role in Afghanistan conflict as well as their own expanding trade relations with China. The rise of the Democratic Party of Japan led to the second major postwar challenge to the U.S. military presence in Okinawa (the first being Okinawa’s reversion to Japanese sovereignty in the 1970s.)

To influence a DPJ leadership skeptical over the future of the alliance, the Joint Chiefs ordered the 7th Fleet to embark on a campaign of robust face-offs with Chinese naval forces along East Asia’s vital Pacific sea lanes. A series of mid-sea challenges – off Hainan island, the Foal Eagle antisubmarine exercises in the Yellow Sea, and the recent joint exercises with Vietnam near the Spratley/Nansha islets – were intended to keep a reluctant Japan in the American fold.

The viewpoints of the “hard power” bloc, which aims to preserve U.S. dominance worldwide, is expressed in the Pentagon report “Naval Operations Concept 2010: Implementing the Maritime Strategy.” NOC2010 echoes many of the “revolution in military affairs” advocated by Andrew Marshall’s Office of Strategic Assessment and Donald Rumsfeld in the early Bush administration prior to the 911 crisis. Their overarching objective was a redesign of capabilities for massive naval bombardment of unnamed adversaries, which resemble the DPRK, Iran and the People”s Republic of China – three countries with extensive coastlines. One technical recommendation was to adapt Trident ballistic-missile submarines into launch platforms for rockets armed with conventional warheads. This makeover has since been completed, and several Tridents were recently forward-deployed from San Diego to attack positions in Guam, Pearl Harbor and Diego Garcia.

The Chinese leadership and the PLA, of course, has noticed these belligerent and stealthy moves, fanning distrust of America’s actual intentions. While the generals avoided the use of iinflammatory language in the media, Chinese missile units carried out several “routine” firing exercises in the Yellow Sea. A leak about a new carrier-killer missile also cooled Washington’s eagerness to flex its muscles in the waters off Tianjin and Dalian.

Over the past year, the two camps in Washington have been sending mixed signals to Beijing – with no apparent coordination between the carrot and the stick. Then came a couple of events that soured and then embittered US-China relations: first, the affirmation of American weapons sales to Taiwan, and then, like a bolt out of the blue, the accusation by the Lee Myung-bak administration claiming that North Korea sank the corvette Choenan.

The heightening of the Choenan crisis put Beijing squarely in the middle of the South-North dispute on the Korean Peninsula and on collision course with a renewed US-Japan Security alliance. On state visits to Seoul and Tokyo in May, Chinese Premier Wen Jiaobao urged calm on all sides in dealing with the Choenan incident. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on her trip to Beijing that same month with Treasury’s Tim Geithner, repeated a canned message blaming Pyongyang for the Korean ship sinking. In an agenda packed with too many issues, including RMB policy and pleas for continued Chinese purchases of U.S. debt, regional security issues got a short shrift.

Serious flaws in South Korea’s official inquiry into the Choenan sinking, along with a fumbled public-relations campaign by the Blue House, led to a wave of skepticism at home in South Korea and among netizens abroad. As a consequence, opposition candidates who had backed the previous government’s rapprochement with the North, known as the Sunshine Policy, swept the local elections, delivering a crushing blow to President Lee.

Since mid-summer, Lee’s Cahinet has been shaken up, culminating in the forced resignation of the hawkish foreign minister. Former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who resigned in the wake of the Choenan incident over his “mishandling” of the Futenma base talks in Okinawa, has recently thrown his support behind party kingpin Ichiro Ozawa in the upcoming DPJ elections. Ozawa has just called for the re-negotiation of the Okinawa base relocation, much to Washington’s consternation. Once again, the security situation looks to be up in the air.

The cracks in U.S. East Asia policy have gone public with an article by former US Ambassador to Seoul Donald P. Gregg, questioning the findings of the Choenan inquiry and urging a new round of direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang. In his concluding paragraph, Gregg describes “a growing realization in Washington that alienating China is an inordinately high price to pay for putting pressure on Pyongyang.”

The reversal of fortunes since 911 means that Washington should speak softly and drop that big stick. In a changing climate of massive deficits and war weariness, whispers speak louder than the roar from gunboats.

End of Part I: Overview. In future articles, specific aspects of this bilateral and regional crisis will be explored in detail.

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