It’s with an odd sense of attempted manipulation that I watch the opening today (25 July) of the joint naval exercise between the US and South Korean navies. As I wrote back in May, when President Obama “ordered the military to work with South Korea,” joint exercises with South Korea are routine. The current exercise is reportedly the largest held in 34 years, which makes it noteworthy; and of course we can expect the administration in Washington to make a point of that fact in touting the exercise, since the purpose of holding this new series is to demonstrate determination and unity to North Korea.
There’s nothing wrong with that: nothing that suggests exaggeration or misrepresentation. But then there’s this. The US reportedly decided to move the first iteration of this joint exercise from the Yellow Sea (between the Korean peninsula and China) to the Sea of Japan, after China objected to the American carrier strike group operating in the Yellow Sea. According to the administration, drills will be held in the Yellow Sea sometime in the future, but not this month.
Meanwhile, Kim Jong-Il has been reported making threats about the exercise.
Did you know, however, that the USS George Washington (CVN-73) Carrier Strike Group conducted a joint exercise with the South Korean navy in the Yellow Sea in October 2009? Did you know it, I should ask, before I wrote about it in May 2010? My guess is, probably not. Little if anything was reported about it at the time. That foray into the Yellow Sea was, indeed, a major departure from our normal naval operating patterns. We have rarely – if ever – had an aircraft carrier in the Yellow Sea since the Korean Armistice in 1953. (I don’t think we’ve had one there in that period, but can’t absolutely verify that.)
Did you know that Kim Jong-Il issued threats then too, or that George Washington had been in the Yellow Sea when North Korea conducted five missile launches off the East coast on 12 October? Or that Pyongyang then announced a maritime closure in the Yellow Sea – presumably for another missile firing – to be in effect later in the month?
If you weren’t aware of the US carrier in the Yellow Sea in October, you probably paid little attention in November 2009, when a Yellow Sea naval skirmish between North and South Korea resulted in the North Korean ship retreating in flames. The March 2010 sinking of ROKS Cheonan was thought by many to be in retaliation for that ignominious incident.
And I doubt you’ve been following the indignation of China at what Beijing considers our saber-rattling with the aircraft carrier visits to the Yellow Sea. The fact that we already sent a carrier to the Yellow Sea, and then decided not to engage in that particular provocation this month, sheds a different light on the latter decision. This blog – which reads like a thoroughly online-translatored version of Chinese government talking points – is undoubtedly an authorized outlet for informational themes from Beijing (complete with the darling photo of a very junior female officer), and has been all over the US-carrier-to-the-Yellow-Sea topic – unfamiliar though it is to the general reader on this side of the Pacific.
It would be an unlikely stretch to conclude that we have been driving events on the Korean peninsula with our naval activities. But the narrative that North Korea sank Cheonan for no particular reason other than sheer cussedness, and that we are reacting to that with a big, determined change in our exercise profile with South Korea, is incomplete enough to furrow the brow. The very thing we threatened to do, and then this month decided not to, we did in October – without fanfare. And our presence in that October exercise was punctuated by North Korean missile launches and hysterical rhetoric.
The big media frenzy accompanying this month’s not-Yellow-Sea-but-Sea-of-Japan joint exercise is obviously occurring because the US administration has said “this is big.” Of greater concern, the media gave no coverage to the October exercise, apparently because the administration did not say “this is big.”
Two points should trouble us here. One is that the Obama administration has shown an incipient penchant for using the Navy in ways that rivals will find provocative. That is one thing if it’s done by a president with a coherent strategic vision and a certainty of just how far he is willing to go; but in Obama’s case, the concern must be that his advisors will operate from a McNamara-like concept of courting unnecessary danger in order to send “signals.”
The other point is that a time like this is the worst possible juncture at which to have media coverage that is ignorant, credulous, and uncritical. There is nothing wrong with the game of using information and narrative to make a point – but when 300 million Americans, including our commercial media, don’t know what the play is, the question arises whether the coach thinks we’re all on the same team.
Cross-posted at Hot Air.