U.S. aircraft carrier's arrival off Korean peninsula also sends a message to China

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 25, 2010; 12:49 AM

In dispatching the aircraft carrier USS George Washington to the Korean Peninsula on Wednesday, the Obama administration said it was putting on a show of U.S. support for South Korea.

South Korea was attacked Tuesday by a deadly North Korean artillery barrage, days after the North revealed what could be a new nuclear weapons program, and President Obama said he wanted to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with an American ally.

But the carrier - with 6,000 sailors and aviators and 75 warplanes - has another audience: China. Exasperated with a lack of help from Beijing on the Korean Peninsula, the Obama administration is trying to pressure China to constrain North Korea.

Pointedly, the Obama administration is sending the George Washington, four companion ships and at least one high-tech attack submarine into the Yellow Sea, off China's coast - the same sea where the administration decided not to hold exercises in July because of boisterous Chinese protests.

"Call it a message," said a senior U.S. military officer, "but we believe in the freedom of navigation."

"It's really important that Beijing lead here as well," Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS" on Wednesday. "The country that can influence North Korea the most is clearly China."

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the United States viewed the artillery fire as a "one-off, premeditated act," not a sign that war was imminent. "Without getting into intelligence matters, we don't see that North Korea is preparing for an extended military confrontation," Crowley said.

But he also called on China "to send a clear, direct, unified message that it is North Korea that has to change."

Whether anyone in Beijing will listen is unclear. China has moved in recent months to embrace North Korea even more tightly than before. And in two official statements this week, China has given no hint that it will change its policy of almost complete support for the government of Kim Jong Il.

"China pays close attention to the incident. We regret the casualties and property losses, and are concerned about the situation," Hong Lei, a spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry, said Wednesday. "We strongly urge that both sides retain calm and restraint, and engage in talks as quickly as possible in order to prevent similar incidents from happening again."

In sending in the Navy, Obama is taking a page from the playbook of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who sought to persuade China to partner with the United States to address North Korea's nuclear program, missile tests and attacks on South Korean targets.

Only when Bush threatened military action against North Korea in a conversation with then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin in February 2003 did China begin to work with the United States to pressure the North Koreans, Bush wrote in his newly released memoir, "Decision Points." His experience comports with that of officials during the Clinton administration.

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