reflections

Power Balances and the ChonAn Incident

6 MINS READJul 21, 2010 | 11:12 GMT
United States Defense Secretary Robert Gates met Tuesday with South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae Young and announced the official date for the long-delayed naval exercises called "Invincible Spirit," which will be held on July 25-28 in the East Sea. The exercises will include the USS George Washington Carrier Strike Group and four F-22 Raptors among a host of other American and Korean ships and aircraft. On Wednesday, Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — accompanied by a delegation of top U.S. officials from the military, State Department and National Security Council — will hold the first ever "2+2" round of talks with their South Korean counterparts in a show of solidarity after the alleged North Korean surprise attack on the South Korean navy corvette, the ChonAn, on March 26. In short, the United States is attempting to give a substantial commitment to South Korea to show that it will come to its defense when needed, and dispel fears to the contrary that were raised following the ChonAn incident. Gates, along with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen and Pacific Command Chief Admiral Robert Willard, stressed that the military exercise is only the first step in what will be a series of exercises between the two states to demonstrate alliance strength, improve operational skills and readiness and deter North Korea from future provocations. The meeting will conclude with a joint statement about the alleged attack and an outline of future military cooperation. Previously, the United States held 2+2 talks with regional partners like Japan and Australia, but not South Korea, so the meetings between the top defense and foreign affairs ministers are meant to represent a promotion of the status of the U.S. and Korean alliance. The two sides will also likely discuss their decision to delay the transfer of wartime operational control over Korean forces for three years to 2015, and may discuss ways to ratify the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement that was signed in 2007. From the Korean point of view, this commitment badly needed demonstrating. Seoul's response to the ChonAn incident has been constrained from the start, and the United States bears some responsibility. Unwilling to risk a war with North Korea, Seoul pursued mostly symbolic and diplomatic means of retribution. But even these efforts were diluted or moderated, primarily due to intervention by China and unwillingness on the part of the United States to pressure Beijing. The limitations on Korea's ability to rally an international response was emblematized by the United Nations Security Council's presidential statement on the incident, which condemned the attack without naming North Korea as the attacker. The ChonAn incident has brought into relief the constraints that bind the different players in Northeast Asia. From the United States' point of view, instability on the peninsula became entangled in the broader U.S.-China dynamic, and Washington proved unwilling to risk a deeper rift with China. This is why the United States repeatedly delayed the military exercises and has resisted sending its aircraft carrier to the West Sea. But the vacillations and cautiousness in dealing with Beijing gave Seoul the impression that Washington's response was not as rapid and unequivocal as it should have been and that its commitment to the alliance was weaker than promised. In this way, the ChonAn incident has brought into relief the constraints that bind the different players in Northeast Asia. In the aftermath of the Korean War, a balance of power was put in place enabling the United States to remove the majority of its forces, as it is currently attempting to do with Iraq and eventually Afghanistan. This balance has held so far, but it has faced serious tests. The ChonAn incident presented yet another test, and each player performed a role. North Korea orchestrated a sudden and inflammatory provocation as part of its strategy of keeping enemies off guard and neighbors divided, called attention to matters of its concern — such as the disputed maritime border and lack of a peace treaty — and managed to pull all of this off with relative impunity. South Korea scrambled to respond to the incident in a way that would appear strong without triggering an internecine war, while striving to reassure its public, get assistance from the United States (its chief security guarantor) and win over other international players. Meanwhile, China served as an abettor of the North Korean regime amid a barrage of criticism from the United States and its allies. It managed to mount such harsh resistance to U.S. plans as to extract concessions, creating divisions between Washington and a disappointed (but still needy) Seoul. Japan and Russia remained aloof; Russia basically supported Beijing, and Tokyo basically supported Washington. The United States struggled to balance its commitment to the alliance with its desire to maintain relations with China, a crucial economic player and one Washington would rather not fight with at present. And yet Beijing inevitably remained opposed to the U.S. response since it brought the most powerful navy in the world — and by no means an ally — right up to China's strategic core. While the balance of power continues to hold, recent events reveal that it cannot be taken for granted. The sinking of the ChonAn would normally be considered an act of war, and not all regions would be able to prevent a downward spiral of unintended consequences after such an event. Pyongyang's alleged ambush seems a particularly flagrant and reckless example of its time-tried strategy – a fact that may reflect the political elite's attempt to manage a potentially highly destabilizing leadership succession. Most importantly, China's regime is facing up to some deeply held fears about future strategic challenges. It sees greater U.S. pressure coming to bear against its economic policies and growing regional influence; it sees heightening internal and external risks to its economic model and social cohesion; and it fears that too much compromise with foreign powers will lead it to the fate of its predecessor, the nationalist Chinese republic that undermined its own credibility by allowing foreign powers to take advantage of it through economic and naval means. Beijing's perspective explains its staunch resistance to the American and Korean show of force. But crucially, with the United States preoccupied with the task of establishing balances of power elsewhere, Washington itself has played a decisive role in putting limits on the alliance's show of force.

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