Backing Down From Beijing

by Michael Mazza

Looks like I spoke too soon. According to a joint statement issued by Secretary of Defense Bob Gates and his South Korean counterpart, the upcoming “exercise will be a multi-day combined naval and air exercise set to commence July the 25th in the seas east of the peninsula. A range of forces will participate, including the USS George Washington, naval ship Dokdo and F-22 Raptors.”

The good news: robust exercises involving 8,000 personnel and a U.S. carrier strike group, designed to send a clear message of deterrence to North Korea.

The bad news: no exercises—let alone a carrier exercise—in the Yellow Sea where the Cheonan sinking occurred, sending a clear message of weakness to the Chinese.

China complained about U.S.-ROK plans to hold an exercise in international waters in the Yellow Sea and, simply put, the United States backed down. The joint statement did promise that “this is the first of a series of ROK-U.S. combined naval exercises that will occur in both the East and West Seas,” which is good news. But if I were a betting man, I would say that any future exercises in the Yellow Sea will be significantly smaller than this first one and will not involve an aircraft carrier.

Were the upcoming exercises—our most immediate military response to the Cheonan sinking—to take place in the Yellow Sea in spite of Chinese objections, they would have incentivized Beijing to alter its behavior. Instead, the United States has altered its own behavior in the hopes that China will act more cooperatively in the future. It is folly to think that this will be effective.

This decision evidences not only a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of the administration of how to deal with the North Korean problem, as I discussed here yesterday, but also a fundamental misunderstanding of how to shape Chinese behavior. China respects power and preys on weakness. Right now, Beijing smells blood in the water.

(Photo: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Charles Oki/released)