- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Chinese carrier pressure

The Obama administration has given in to pressure from China and will not send the aircraft carrier strike group led by the USS George Washington to the Yellow Sea for upcoming naval exercises. The move followed protests from Beijing that a warship group in that area would pose a threat to China.

The carrier, however, will take part in exercises beginning this weekend on the eastern side of the Korean Peninsula in the Sea of Japan, a location that was not opposed by China.

Officially, Pentagon spokesmen insist the decision on the Yellow Sea has not yet been made. But defense officials close to the issue told Inside the Ring the decision not to send the carrier to the next phase of the maneuvers, which are intended as a saber-rattling message to North Korea, is already set.

As a result, the officials said the failure to send the carrier will be viewed by China as a sign of U.S. weakness and will undermine U.S. efforts to maintain freedom of navigation in the western Pacific near China.

Chinese government and military spokesmen in recent days announced that any dispatch of a carrier to waters near its territory would be a threat to China.

Chinese Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu told state-run media July 19 that the Yellow Sea is a “sensitive area.” He said sending the aircraft carrier strike group there would be a threat because its combat attack radius would cover all of China and its reconnaissance reach would penetrate deep inside the country.

“If the United States truly wants to take into account the overall interests of the Sino-U.S. relationship, then it must on no account send its USS Washington to the Yellow Sea,” Gen. Zhu said.

Plans for the large-scale U.S.-South Korean naval and aircraft exercises irked Beijing, which sided with Pyongyang in the dispute over the sinking of the South Korean ship Cheonan, which killed 46 sailors. Chinese military officials have said publicly that they doubt the findings of the probe linking the torpedo attack to North Korea.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters traveling with him in Asia on Tuesday that he understands China’s concerns.

“The Yellow Sea, specifically, is an international body of water. And the United States always reserves the right to operate in those, in international waters. And certainly, I hear what the Chinese are saying with respect to that,” he said. “But in fact we have exercised in the Yellow Sea for a long time, and I fully expect that we’ll do so in the future.”

However, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell sidestepped questions about whether the George Washington would take part in the upcoming Yellow Sea war games.

Mr. Morrell said only the first part of the joint U.S.-South Korea exercises were announced. “Follow-on exercises are still under development, and the dates, locations and assets to be deployed have not been determined yet,” he told Inside the Ring. “But I can assure you, we will be training in both the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea, as we have done many times before.”

Mr. Morrell said he would not discuss “any particular ship,” but stated: “We reserve the right to operate in any and all international waters. We cede nothing in terms of freedom of navigation.”

Michael Pillsbury, a former Pentagon official and specialist on Chinese military affairs, said a decision not to send the carrier to the Yellow Sea exercises would reflect a two-decade-old, misguided U.S. policy that incorrectly “sought to reassure Chinese paranoid views about U.S. intentions.”

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