South Korea and the United States will launch a major, four-day naval exercise in the Sea of Japan this weekend, coinciding with the annual regional forum of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Hanoi, Vietnam. Tension in East Asia has remained high in recent months especially after North Korea’s sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan last March.
The Cheonan incident is likely to dominate the ASEAN summit which will be attended by all Southeast Asian states as well representatives from China, Europe, Russia and of State Secretary Hillary Clinton for the United States.
North Korea, which has denied attacking the Cheonan and threatened with “all out war” should the South respond militarily to its sinking, is expected to dispatch its top diplomat to the annual security meeting.
A draft declaration that was obtained by Agence France-Presse ahead of the forum expresses a “deep concern” with the sinking of the South Korean ship but doesn’t call for sanctions. The South would like the forum to condemn North Korea for the attack. Few analysts expect that it will. Rather the draft calls for the “utmost restraint” and reaffirms support for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
Judging from a joint statement released by defense secretaries Robert Gates of the United States and Kim Tae-young of South Korea on Tuesday, “restraint” is hardly an appropriate response according to these two countries. They announced military exercises “designed to send a clear message to North Korea that its aggressive behavior must stop, and that we are committed to together enhancing our combined defensive capabilities.”
The series of maritime and air readiness exercises, named Invincible Spirit, will involve some 8,000 military personnel from both countries and eighteen ships including the USS George Washington carrier strike group forward deployed at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. Over a hundred aircraft will also partake in the exercise, including the new F-22 Raptor fighter plane.
Whether Invincible Spirit will manage to deter North Korea is doubtful. Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell admitted as much, noting that “what makes North Korea so challenging and at times, so confounding” is that it “doesn’t care how it is viewed by the rest of world and doesn’t care how it treats its own people,” making it extremely difficult to gain leverage.
“At the same time,” said Morrell, “none of us wants to fight another war on the peninsula and clearly none of us — certainly the Chinese — are interested in instability on the peninsula.”
China favors stability before anything else yet as the North’s only friend in the region, its position is pivotal. In the wake of the Cheonan incident, it has become more difficult for Beijing not to accept the regime’s culpability. As The Economist opined last May, it no longer has an “excuse” to take Kim Jong-il’s claims of innocence at face value.
While its interest should compel China to side with ASEAN — having just signed a free-trade agreement in January — there are still hardliners within the Communist Party and the Chinese military who sympathize with their ideological counterparts in Korea. There is a chance for ASEAN and the United States to exploit the divide among China’s leaders over how to cope with North Korea’s mounting bellicosity however and have the internationalists prevail.
Foreign Ministry bureaucrats and politicians with ties to international trade want China to maintain a stable relation with the West. They understand that the country can’t simultaneously continue to support a rogue and desperate regime that will continue to invent crises to ensure its survival but undermine stability in all of East Asia in the process. China’s posturing at this weekend’s regional forum and, perhaps more telling, its reaction to the joint South Korea-US military exercise, may shed some light on whether the internationalists are gaining strength.