The United States and South Korea formally announced Tuesday they will conduct naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, between China and the Korean Peninsula, in spite of Chinese government objections. The announcement was made following a meeting between U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his South Korean counterpart, Kim Tae-young.
According to a joint statement, the first of a series of exercises will begin Sunday in the Sea of Japan, east of the Korean Peninsula. It will involve the U.S. aircraft carrier George Washington, about 20 American and South Korean warships and numerous aircraft. Officials call this a "large scale" exercise, but say final decisions have not yet been made about additional naval and air maneuvers planned for the Yellow Sea, between the Korean Peninsula and China.
The Chinese government has strongly objected to that plan, saying such a move will raise tensions and threaten its vital interests.
A South Korean rear admiral, Kim Kyung Sik, describes the exercises as a "formidable show of force" and "a clear warning to North Korea."
The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Admiral Robert Willard, told reporters in Seoul the exercises are designed to signal "intolerance" for the sinking of the South Korean Navy vessel Cheonan in March, killing 46 sailors. An international investigation blamed North Korea, but it denies involvement. Willard says the United States and South Korea have chosen not to respond with military moves several times when North Korea has carried out various attacks over the years and provocative tests of its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons capabilities.
"This is a show of force intended to send a signal to North Korea with regard to what has occurred. And, it is intended also to signal the region the resolve of this alliance and our commitment to one another and the scope and scale of our ability to operate together," said Willard.
The exercises will include practice defending against submarine attacks, such as the one that allegedly sank the South Korean ship.
The top U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, says such exercises are important, particularly in the sensitive and difficult to navigate international waters between the Chinese and Korean coasts, where the Cheonan attack happened.
"The anti-submarine area, finding submarines, is a difficult military undertaking in any warfare community, in any service. And then, operating specifically in the West Sea, in that water, is much more demanding than in the East Sea. So that's why it's important that these exercises be done jointly and constantly," said Mullen. "You have to stay current. You have to do it all the time."
U.S. officials acknowledge these exercises may not convince North Korea to change its policies, and they express some frustration at the difficulty of influencing the country's leaders on many issues. They call these exercises a "first step" designed to show North Korea its "behavior has to change." And they say, although these exercises were planned to respond to the ship sinking, there is nothing unusual about American forces operating in the area.
Former Bush administration official Stephen Yates says China should consider joint exercises a relatively light response to a ship sinking, which many consider an act of war.
"If a Chinese vessel had been attacked and sunk, what would their people be demanding by way of a show of force? I think that South Koreans wanting to have this kind of a joint exercise is quite mild actually," said Yates.
Northeast Asia researcher Denny Roy, of the East-West Center in Hawaii, is not surprised at China's objections to the exercises.
"China is, of course, not going to be happy about military exercises conducted by a potential adversary, to put it bluntly, near the Chinese coast," said Roy.
But Roy says China made a mistake by objecting so strongly to the American and South Korean plan.
"I think it was, frankly, rather ill-advised of the Chinese to put themselves in the position of specifically warning the United States not to carry out this exercise, particularly given that the Chinese are partly responsible for the sense of heightened security risk in the region because of North Korea's actions," he said. "The Chinese come out losers in this particular episode, having specifically warned against the United States doing this and putting their prestige and credibility on the line, but then having been rebuffed by the Unite States' going ahead with the plan."
The U.S. Pacific commander, Admiral Willard, says China was not consulted about the military exercise plan and he is not worried that China might extend the suspension of military relations with the United States, as a result. Rather, he says his concern is that China should use its influence to convince North Korea not to conduct such attacks in the future.