A Change of Tack?
The USS Carl Vinson Strike Group, originally bound for Australia, was given the order on Sunday to turn around and head to the Korean peninsula. This comes after a North Korean ballistic missile test on Wednesday, which appeared to be an easier-to-launch rocket using solid fuel. Important North Korean celebrations are also right around the corner, including founding president Kim Il Sung’s birthday on April 15 and the anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army on April 25. These important dates, along with mounting international pressure and recent satellite imagery, suggest that North Korea may be gearing up for another nuclear test.
Up until now, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s rhetoric has ranged from ominous to cryptic to terse. Furthermore, the recent summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago did not yield any concrete results when it came to China’s troublesome neighbor. The deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group to the region has given gravity to Trump’s threats of unilateral action, especially in light of recent missile attacks on Syria. But does this actually signify a policy shift?
China Doesn’t Seem to Think So
As the U.S. Navy flexes its muscles in the Pacific, China’s media response has been surprisingly calm and restrained. On the CCTV News WeChat channel, for example, there was one analysis article about the aircraft carrier. It dismissed the possibility of military engagement on the peninsula, pointing to the certain North Korean retaliation against South Korea and Japan and arguing that a few dozen Tomahawk missiles aren’t going to do much to stop North Korean nuclear development. The news channel then shifted its focus to more important issues—the height of bus signs and the importance of reading.
The Global Times, a nationalistic mouthpiece, ran an article arguing that “it is almost certain that there will be no war, but only tough bargaining” between the U.S. and North Korea. Xinhua, the official news agency of the Communist Party, had one article echoing a Russian official’s warnings. In other words, the alarm bells are not ringing in China.
Why This Is Important
Tillerson said on Sunday, “President Xi clearly understands, and I think agrees, that the situation has intensified and has reached a certain level of threat that action has to be taken.” This is a groundbreaking statement, because it challenges the strategic distrust that has plagued Sino-U.S. relations for decades. Although China remains wary of American political maneuvering in East Asia, Xi has apparently agreed that “action” is necessary when dealing with North Korea.
It is important to note that the word “action” is intentionally vague, and can mean anything from a scolding from the State Department to full-scale military invasion. Since we are not in the halls of power, we do not know what “action” Tillerson and Xi are referring to. However, in the context of the U.S.S. Vinson, we can safely assume that it is a step up from a verbal slap on the wrist.
China would in no way support American action on the Korean Peninsula; it is simply too close for comfort. If Chinese officials had interpreted this as a hostile act, they would have arguably been very vocal, arousing sympathy for North Korea and boosting patriotic sentiment. The fact that Chinese media and senior leadership have essentially given the U.S. a green light means that this is just chest puffing… for now.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily represent the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror as a whole.
Photo credit: “USS Carl Vinson, left, transits the East China Sea.” by Official U.S. Navy Page for Flickr with a CC BY 2.0 license. No changes were made to the original image.