U.S. sailors carry out a vertical replenishment exercise on the flightdeck of the USS George Washington in the Western Pacific on October 20, 2010. (U.S. Navy photograph by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class David Cox)
(Editor’s note: Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said Monday that the joint exercises had been postponed due to “scheduling” difficulties, and that the decision “had nothing to do with China,” Reuters reports.)
(CNSNews.com) - The U.S. and South Korea have called off plans for joint naval exercises in the coming days involving a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Yellow Sea, according to South Korean media reports.
Korean defense sources quoted in the reports linked the decision to the Nov. 11-12 G20 summit in Seoul, which will bring together President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao, along with other leaders from the group’s leading and emerging economies.
The decision was made so as “not to unnecessarily antagonize neighboring countries,” the official Yonhap news agency quoted an official as saying on Sunday.
The JoongAng Ilbo newspaper cited a government source as saying there would now not be any exercises involving a U.S. carrier this year.
The Yellow Sea stretches between China and the west coast of the Korean peninsula. Beijing has complained indignantly this year about the prospect of U.S. warships – in particular, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington – taking part in maneuvers there.
China’s complaints have come amid tensions between the two countries over the deployment of People’s Liberation Army Navy ships in waters contested between China and other Asian nations, especially in the South China Sea.
China told the U.S. this year it considers the South China Sea to be one of its “core interests” and decried outside “interference” in the area. The U.S. in response said it was in the U.S. national interest to see freedom of navigation and respect for international law in the South China Sea.
The U.S. and South Korea planned a series of exercises this year, in response to the sinking of a South Korean warship last March. An international investigation attributed the attack, which killed 46 South Korean sailors, to a North Korean torpedo.
Several of the exercises have taken place although those led by the George Washington, in late July, were held east of the Korean peninsula, in waters further away from Chinese territory.
The Pentagon denied at the time that they had been moved eastward to accommodate China’s objections, saying they had never been slated for the Yellow Sea in the first place.
But it also stated that the carrier would be involved in future exercises, and that those would definitely take place in the Yellow Sea.
In early August, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said more naval exercises with the South Koreans would take place “over the next several months.”
“They will once again involve the USS George Washington,” he said. “And the USS George Washington will exercise in the Yellow Sea.”
Morrell returned to the subject a month later. “The USS George Washington will indeed exercise in the Yellow Sea again,” he told a Sept. 9 briefing, reiterating that the U.S. had the “right to operate in any and all international waters.”
Morrell, who said dates would be announced later, added that the planned drills were not intended to offend or send a message to China. “It’s meant to send a message to the North Koreans about their behavior.”
His comments, which drew fresh criticism from China, have been echoed by senior defense officials.
“There has been an assertion that, you know, we shouldn’t operate in the Yellow Sea. It’s international waters,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said at a media breakfast in Washington on Sept. 29. “We’re going to operate in the Yellow Sea.”
Earlier, Mullen told personnel at a military base in Washington State that the George Washington had operated in the Yellow Sea in the past and would do so again.
“We have never adhered to somebody else’s view about expanded territorial waters – which it just isn’t.”
Mullen is a former commander of the George Washington carrier strike group.
Based in Yokosuka, Japan, the 97,000-ton George Washington is America’s first permanently forward-deployed nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Late last week it was underway in the East China Sea, according to the U.S. Navy.
Early this month the U.S. canceled a tentatively scheduled visit by the carrier to Hong Kong, although a Pentagon spokesman attributed the move to operational commitments, not objections from Beijing.
Three years ago, China barred entry into Hong Kong of the USS Kitty Hawk, the George Washington’s conventionally-fuelled predecessor based in Yokosuka. The carrier had been scheduled to dock in Hong Kong over the Thanksgiving long weekend.
Beijing at the time was angered by a visit to the U.S. by the Dalai Lama, who met with President Bush and was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. China regards the exiled Tibetan leader as a dangerous separatist.