On Saturday, the USS Carl Vinson strike group, the aircraft carrier escorted by two guided-missile destroyers, and a guided-missile cruiser, left Singapore and headed to the Sea of Japan. The strike group was originally scheduled to sail to Australia.
The deployment of the Carl Vinson off the Korean peninsula is intended to deter North Korea as well as reassure allies of American commitment. It will also be ready to go to war if need be.
The Department of Defense has been downplaying the group’s deployment as an act of prudence. “There’s not a specific demand signal or specific reason we’re sending her up there,” said Secretary of Defense James Mattis at a Pentagon news conference Tuesday. “She’s stationed in the Western Pacific for a reason. She operates freely up and down the Pacific and she’s on her way up there because that’s where we thought it was most prudent to have her at this time.”
The line between deterrence and provocation is thin, so any US response to North Korean provocation could trigger conflict. Nonetheless, a show of force is necessary.
Why? Because passivity in the face of provocation and aggression in the past has invited more provocation and aggression. For example, in March 2010, a North Korean submarine torpedoed the Cheonan, a South Korean frigate, killing 46 sailors. The Pentagon planned to send the USS George Washington strike group to the Yellow Sea, near the site of the sinking. Beijing did not want the American vessel so close to its shores—the Yellow Sea lies between China and Korea—and vehemently objected to the planned deployment.
One Chinese flag officer, almost certainly speaking as part of a Beijing-directed and coordinated campaign, threatened to sink the George Washington, which like the Carl Vinson is a Nimitz-class carrier. China would make the George Washington “a live target” if it entered the Yellow Sea boasted Luo Yuan, a Chinese major general, in July.
The threat was clearly empty. China would not have precipitated an all-out war with the US because an American warship was sailing in international waters. The Obama White House, nonetheless blinked and chose not to send the George Washington group into the Yellow Sea.
That choice was a mistake. The Obama administration thought it was exercising restraint. Beijing celebrated the American decision, and North Korea acted. In November of that year, the North Korean military shelled Yeonpyeong Island, not far from the site of the sinking of the Cheonan. Four South Koreans died, two of them civilians.
There are many lessons to take away from the sequence of events in 2010, but the most important of them is that when American resolve yields to “restraint” and passivity, deterrence fails. And nothing good happens when American deterrence fails.