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.
"The history of Chinese intervention is that the only time they really intervened to constrain the North Koreans was when they were worried about the prospect of military intervention from our side," said Susan Shirk, a State Department official during the Clinton administration. "We've got to test that now."
The problem now is that China seems less willing to intercede.
Starting this year, Beijing has moved to tighten its relationship with Pyongyang. It has hosted Kim twice and backed his plan to pass power on to his third son, Kim Jong Eun. During Kim's second trip to China in August, the full Standing Committee of the Politburo - the most powerful nine men in China - met with the younger Kim in the northeast city of Changchun, a honor comparable to the U.S. Cabinet traveling to, say, Portland, Maine, to meet with a foreign dignitary.
Worried about the prospect of economic collapse in North Korea, China has bolstered trade and investment. It also ran interference for North Korea at the United Nations, where for six months China delayed the release of a report that alleged that North Korea may have transferred ballistic missile and nuclear technology to Syria, Iran and Burma. When the Cheonan, a South Korean warship, sank on March 26, leaving 46 sailors dead, Beijing refused to criticize Pyongyang - despite the conclusion of a team of international experts that North Korean forces fired the torpedo that scuppered the ship.
China's leaders have justified their support of North Korea to U.S. officials by saying that if the government collapsed, hundreds of thousands of refugees would flow over their border. But deeper issues are involved, according to a series of interviews conducted with Chinese officials and academics. China's Communist Party views the survival of the North Korean regime as a key to the maintenance of its own rule.
"North Korea is our East Germany," said one senior Chinese security official interviewed in Beijing over the summer. "Do you remember what happened when East Germany collapsed? The Soviet Union fell."
"I can appreciate that the Chinese are a classic case of a great power with a really bad client state," said Daniel Sneider, associate director for research at Stanford University's Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, "and the tail is wagging the dog."
China has taken significant international heat for its support of the North. By backing Pyongyang over the sinking of the Cheonan, Shirk said, "China set in motion the one thing that their foreign policy was designed to prevent" - the emergence of two mutually antagonistic blocs in Asia. Japan's government, which had been considering a more equidistant policy between the United States and China, moved closer to Washington. South Korea and the United States are apparently closer than they have been in years.
Sneider said he sees the dispatch of the George Washington as a necessary first step towards reminding China that "instability" on the Korean peninsula can come from all sorts of directions, including Washington.
"The logical conclusion is that the Americans need to provide a credible threat," he said.