The Sinking of Cheonan
The sinking of South Korean naval corvette ‘Cheonan’ on 26 March allegedly by a North Korean submarine has triggered unprecedented geopolitical flux in the Western Pacific region, which includes the Yellow Sea and South China Sea and East Asia as such.
While South Korea and its strategic partner the US are convinced that the South Korean vessel was torpedoed by a North Korean submarine, the Chinese and the Russians have refused to endorse it. On the other hand, North Korea has demanded an international panel to investigate the incident. Two South Korean academics Prof Lee (University of Virginia) and Prof Sue (John Hopkins University) have expressed doubts about the North Korean involvement in the said incident.
There are also analysts, who believe that China may have scripted the incident as part of a calibrated move to expel American forces from Western Pacific and East Asia. The US military presence in Japan (32,803) and Korea (27,014 US personnel), and the US-Taiwan military relations are serious strategic distractions for China and the major inhibiting factor in China’s march to super power status.
It is a rather well understood truism that without the patronage of China, North Korea cannot survive as a nation-state. China prefers to maintain the rouge, hermit, impoverished and enigmatic status of North Korea”¦
It is a rather well understood truism that without the patronage of China, North Korea cannot survive as a nation-state. China prefers to maintain the rouge, hermit, impoverished and enigmatic status of North Korea, since it gives China the leverage to use North Korea as a proxy for illegitimate activities in the international arena, while retaining the deniability factor. The proliferation of nuclear weapons technology and missiles to Pakistan, Iran and now Myanmar at the facilitation of China are few examples. In respect of North Korea, Robert F Willand, Commander of US Pacific Command, appropriately observes, “how do you leverage with the regime that does not care how it is viewed by the rest of the world, and does not care how it treats its own people”.
In response to the sinking of corvette ‘Cheonan’, in which 46 South Korean sailors perished, the US conducted a massive joint military exercise ‘Op Invincible Spirit’ with South Korea between 25 and 28 July 2010. About 8,000 US and South Korean troops, 200 fixed wing aircraft and 20 ships, which included the aircraft carrier ‘George Washington,’ participated in the exercise. General Walter L. Sharp, Commander of the US Forces in South Korea said: “the defensive combined training exercises are designed to send a clear message to North Korea that its aggressive behaviour must stop”. He also reiterated that South Korea and the US “are committed to enhancing our combined defense capabilities”.
Notwithstanding the above posturing, in what is being perceived as a placatory gesture to China, the US authorities decided to change the location of the exercise away from the Yellow Sea, wherein the Cheonan was allegedly torpedoed. It may be mentioned that the aircraft carrier George Washington participated in a joint US-South Korea exercise in the Yellow Sea as recently as in October 2009. China considers the Yellow Sea as the vital passage to the country’s heartland and claims it as a ‘military operations zone’. In this context, Maj Gen Luo Yuan, Dy Secretary PLA Academy of Military Sciences, quoted Mao: “we will never allow others to lay snoring besides our beds”.
The change in location in face of strong protests by China is being perceived as a major climb-down by the US both home and abroad. It sent signals that China was a more reliable ally, as it backed North Korea all through; while the US was seen to dilute its security commitment to South Korea under Chinese pressure. Although, later the Defence Department clarified that future exercises could be conducted in the Yellow Sea, which the US considers as international waters, the image of the US as a reliable ally surely took some beating.
Although, later the Defence Department clarified that future exercises could be conducted in the Yellow Sea, which the US considers as international waters, the image of the US as a reliable ally surely took some beating.
The Chinese also resorted to some aggressive posturing by flexing its military muscle. Just days before the US-South Korea exercise, China carried out its own military exercise ‘Warfare 2010’, which involved deployment of helicopters, rescue vessels and mobilization of tanks. Though, the Chinese maintained that the exercise was routine in nature and was designed to improve defence capabilities against long-distance attacks, the timing of the exercise was significant. During the same period, North Korea issued a nuclear threat. On the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum, the North Korean representative delivered the warning that the US should not proceed with the joint exercise if it wants to see a nuclear free Korean Peninsula. North Korea also threatened that it would use nuclear weapons to launch “retaliatory sacred war” against US and its allies.
Going by the above developments, it can be inferred that the standoff between North and South Korea has the potential to develop into a dangerous regional military conflict involving China, USA, Japan, as also many others.
Many in the US policy making apparatus are convinced that the latest nuclear posturing by North Korea was at the behest of China.