BEIJING — As tensions mounted on the Korean Peninsula, Adm. Harry Harris made a dramatic announcement: An aircraft carrier had been ordered to sail north from Singapore on April 8 toward the Western Pacific.
A spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Command, which Harris heads, linked the deployment directly to the “number one threat in the region,” North Korea, and its “reckless, irresponsible and destabilizing program of missile tests and pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability.”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters on April 11 that the Carl Vinson was “on her way up there.” Asked about the deployment in an interview with Fox Business Network that aired April 12, President Trump said: “We are sending an armada, very powerful.”
U.S. media went into overdrive, and Fox reported on April 14 that the armada was “steaming” toward North Korea.
But pictures posted by the U.S. Navy suggest that’s not quite the case — or at least not yet.
A photograph released by the Navy showed the aircraft carrier sailing through the calm waters of Sunda Strait between the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java on Saturday, April 15. By later in the day, it was in the Indian Ocean, according to Navy photographs.
In other words, on the same day that the world nervously watched North Korea stage a massive military parade to celebrate the birthday of the nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung, and the press speculated about a preemptive U.S. strike, the U.S. Navy put the Carl Vinson, together with its escort of two guided-missile destroyers and a cruiser, more than 3,000 miles southwest of the Korean Peninsula — and more than 500 miles southeast of Singapore.
Instead of steaming toward the Korea Peninsula, the carrier strike group was actually headed in the opposite direction to take part in “scheduled exercises with Australian forces in the Indian Ocean,” according to Defense News, which first reported the story.
Neither the Pacific Command nor the Pacific Fleet responded immediately to requests for comment. On Monday, Cmdr. Clayton Doss, a Pacific Fleet spokesman, said only that the USS Carl Vinson and its escorts were “transiting the Western Pacific.” He declined to give a more precise location except to rule out the waters around South Korea or Japan.
The presence of the U.S. carrier strike group, and the threat of a U.S. military strike on North Korea, had weighed heavily on Chinese minds and in the media here. Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned that “storm clouds” were gathering and the risk of conflict rising.
The news that the ships were not where everyone assumed them to be was greeted with some glee in the Chinese media Tuesday.
“Tricked badly!” the Global Times exulted on its social media account. “None of the U.S. aircraft carriers that South Korea is desperately waiting for has come!”
Was it all a misunderstanding, or deliberate obfuscation?
Cai Jian, an expert from the Center for Korean Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, said the whole episode was part of an elaborate game of “psychological warfare or bluffing” by the United States. He argued that Washington never really intended to launch a military strike on North Korea right now.
“At the peak of the standoff, psychological warfare is very important,” he said.
Ross Babbage, a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for Strategic Budgetary Assessments, a Washington-based think tank that focuses on the military, said the move may be “military signaling” by the United States.
“It’s more than a bluff,” he said. “A bluff suggests you’re not serious. My understanding is that this U.S. administration is dead serious. It’s been 40 years of trying to get the North Koreans to back away from the nuclear weapons.”
Babbage said it was also possible that the Trump administration had decided to give China a little time to put its own pressure on North Korea before sending the carrier strike group north. Trump met his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, on April 6 and 7 and spoke by phone with him on April 11, and may have wanted to give the Chinese some breathing space to before “rattling the bars,” Babbage said.
Nor should the aircraft carrier’s presence, alone, be given too much weight, he added, since any early strikes on North Korea would likely have been carried out by long-range aircraft.
Mattis said the U.S. administration was working closely with China to address the issue of North Korea’s nuclear program.
“You’re aware that the leader of North Korea again recklessly tried to provoke something by launching a missile,” Mattis told reporters Tuesday on his way to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. “It shows why we’re working so closely right now with the Chinese coming out of the Mar-a-Lago meeting . . . to try to get this under control and to aim for a denuclearized Korean Peninsula that China and the United States, South Korea and Japan all share that same interest in.”
While the belief that the Carl Vinson was heading toward Korea was reported as fact by media outlets around the world, there were hints it was perhaps not steaming there as fast as many supposed. On April 11, U.S. Naval Institute News reported that although the carrier had canceled port calls in Australia, it had not scrubbed training events to move faster toward the Korean Peninsula, and would still take more than a week to enter waters near Korea — a point that was lost amid heated talk of “war.”
Other photographs released by the Navy showed the Carl Vinson in the South China Sea from April 12 to 14.
In any case, the carrier strike force may indeed be finally heading north now.
The Korea Herald reported Monday that the Carl Vinson is due to arrive in South Korea’s eastern waters on April 25, in time for another important date on the North Korean calendar: the anniversary of the army’s founding.
Quoting unnamed South Korean officials, the Herald said “the strike group will join the South Korean Navy in a massive maritime drill designed to counter provocation from the North.”
CNN also cited U.S. defense officials as saying the aircraft carrier would arrive off the Korean Peninsula at the end of April.
Luna Lin in Beijing, Dan Lamothe in Washington, Thomas Gibbons-Neff in Riyadh and Anna Fifield in Tokyo contributed to this report.