The United States announced Wednesday that some of the naval exercises planned with South Korean forces will be held in the Yellow Sea, between the Korean Peninsula and China, in spite of Chinese government concerns about the plan. The Pentagon also confirmed for the first time that a U.S. aircraft carrier will be involved in the exercises, but would not say whether the huge ship will participate in the Yellow Sea part of the event.
Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said the United States respects and considers China's views, but will not be deterred from holding the exercises. They were first announced in May, after an international investigation blamed North Korea for the sinking of a South Korean Navy ship in March, killing 46 sailors. North Korea denied the charge.
"This is a matter of our ability to exercise in the open seas, in international waters," said Geoff Morrell. "Those determinations are made by us, and us alone. Where we exercise, when we exercise, with whom and how, using what assets and so forth are determinations that are made by the United States Navy, by the Department of Defense, by the United States Government."
Morrell could not say exactly when the exercises will be held or which ships and what type of aircraft would be involved. But he did say that the aircraft carrier USS George Washington will participate in the exercises. That possibility has been a cause of considerable excitement and controversy in South Korea and China.
The decision to use the huge and highly capable ship makes a strong statement which Morrell says is intended to send signal of deterrence to North Korea and reassurance to South Korea. But he says the ship operates in the Yellow Sea on a regular basis, most recently last October.
"There are obviously territorial waters that we are always respectful of, no matter where we operate throughout the world," he said. "But beyond that jurisdiction, beyond that 12-mile limit, we get into the high seas, international waters, that we or anybody else is free to operate in, and we do regularly."
A spokesman in Beijing said Tuesday U.S.-South Korean exercises in the Yellow Sea would threaten key Chinese interests including its sovereignty, security, territorial integrity and economic development. In addition, the official Xinhua News Agency said the plan "is gradually drawing widespread public ire in China," and called for "restraint" and "calm," rather than what it called "drastic moves."
Two sets of naval exercises had originally been expected in late June or early July. One was to be aimed at improving South Korea's ability to combat aggression by surface ships and the other was aimed at building its ability to fight submarines, such as the one that allegedly sank its ship, the Cheonan, in March.
Professor Clark Sorensen, Chairman of the Center for Korea Studies at the University of Washington, says such exercises seem to be needed.
"I think they're probably necessary," said Clark Sorensen. "It seemed quite striking that the Cheonan, that Korean corvette [small warship] that was torpedoed, had no idea that there was a torpedo around. And so it seems like they need more training so that they won't be caught off guard like that again."
Sorensen says China is concerned about the plan because it wants to ease tensions and resume the six-party talks it hosts, which the professor says have so far failed to make significant progress toward curtailing North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
The Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell says the naval exercise plan will be finalized next week, when U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton visit Seoul.
"We are going to have what will likely be a final consultation on this matter when the two secretaries meet with their counterparts in Seoul and I expect that shortly thereafter we will proceed with what we believe to be very smart, very productive and very helpful exercises," said Morrell.
Morrell also defended the decision announced last month to postpone the transfer of wartime control of the joint U.S. and South Korean command to South Korea. The delay, announced by the two countries' presidents in the wake of the ship sinking, moved the transfer date from mid-2012 to late 2015. Morrell said the decision was not related to any problem in the development of the South Korean military. But he said the additional time will be used to further improve its ability to manage forces and command ground operations, and will provide time for more progress on moving and consolidating bases and implementing defense reforms.