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Pentagon: We didn’t delay Yellow Sea exercises to placate China

The Pentagon delayed planned joint U.S.-South Korea naval exercises that were to be held in the Yellow Sea near China this week, but not as a concession to China, multiple Pentagon officials tell The Cable. "We absolutely and categorically did not scale back in order to placate Beijing," a defense official said. "The decision to ...

The Pentagon delayed planned joint U.S.-South Korea naval exercises that were to be held in the Yellow Sea near China this week, but not as a concession to China, multiple Pentagon officials tell The Cable.

"We absolutely and categorically did not scale back in order to placate Beijing," a defense official said. "The decision to postpone was due solely to the complexities of the planning process, and not about China. We are working on planning for joint exercises intended to send a clear message to Korea about its behavior and its actions."

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell was adamant. "We have caved to no one," he said. "The USS George Washington will exercise in Yellow Sea again, just as we have always said it would."

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported Monday that the exercises, which had been planned for this week, were delayed so as to not cause friction with China ahead of the November 11 G-20 talks in Seoul. The U.S. and South Korea avoided the Yellow Sea when conducting joint military exercises in July amid protests from both China and North Korea, but promised to resume using those waters for drills as part of their effort to show alliance strength in the wake of the sinking of the South Korean ship Cheonan.

The U.S. military did conduct some anti-submarine warfare exercises in the Yellow Sea in Septemberg, but no carriers were present.

The issue of U.S. military exercises in the Yellow Sea has become contentious due to China’s increasing assertiveness over control of maritime areas near its borders. In a related dispute, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton staked out the U.S. position over the South China Sea during her visit to Hanoi in August, saying, "The United States supports a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion."

The U.S. and China resumed military-to-military dialogue this month, after months of not speaking to each other following a unilateral departure from ongoing talks by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The PLA cut off talks in May and rejected a visit to China by Defense Secretary Robert Gates due to its longstanding objections to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

Meanwhile, there is increasing angst in Washington about the role China is playing as the de facto defender of North Korea in wake of the Cheonan sinking. Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) just released a new report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) that raises serious questions about how China may be undermining international sanctions against the Hermit Kingdom.

CRS wrote that "China constitutes a large gap in the circle of countries that have approved U.N.S.C. Resolutions 1718 (2006) and 1874 (2009) and are expected to implement them."

North Korea still transits goods by land and air through China with little or no threat of inspection, and the flow of luxury goods from China to the Kim Jong-Il regime continues unabated. CRS reported that Pyongyang is using several front companies in China to circumvent U.N. sanctions.

"Because China takes a minimalist approach to implementing sanctions on North Korea, it has proven difficult to strengthen measures any further in the U.N. context," the CRS report noted. "Overall, the United State appears to place a higher priority on implementation of U.N. sanctions on Iran than on North Korea."

"The findings include a stark reminder that U.S. and China interests regarding North Korea are largely incongruent," Lugar said in a statement. "China’s less than rigorous approach toward implementing sanctions targeting North Korea should be a wake-up call to this White House in the ongoing development of its North Korea strategy."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin