In response to North Korea’s unprovoked and brutal artillery attack on a South Korean fishing village earlier this week, President Obama did what American presidents have done for over half a century — he dispatched a carrier strike group to the crisis zone. The USS George Washington and its escort ships will patrol the Yellow Sea to reassure our Korean allies and serve notice upon North Korea that it is within reach of American naval airpower. Such an option may not be available to Mr. Obama’s successors, however, if the administration’s deep cuts to the Navy’s shipbuilding budget continue.
Watching the decline of the U.S. Navy from its cold war-dominating, 600-ship level to today’s 286-ship fleet, China has sensed its opportunity to expand its reach in the Pacific, especially in the Yellow Sea, where the George Washington is headed. China has declared the South and East China Seas and Yellow Sea within its “core interests.” To back up its claims to large swaths of the Pacific once protected by the U.S. Navy, China has engaged in a massive ship and submarine building spree and intends to launch four aircraft carriers in the coming decade. On Friday, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported that China had warned the U.S. against “any military acts in [its] exclusive economic zone without permission.” Since this zone includes most of the international waters in the Yellow Sea, China has basically told Mr. Obama to recall the USS George Washington from its current mission. So far, Mr. Obama has not bowed to the edict.
China has put the United States on notice before that it does not appreciate interference in its self-proclaimed backyard. Most dramatically, in October 2006, a 160-foot Chinese Song-class diesel-electric attack submarine surfaced within torpedo and missile firing range of the USS Kitty Hawk, having stalked the American aircraft carrier and evaded its defensive screen. The incident was widely reported in the international press and reportedly caused major embarrassment to the Pentagon. The following year, the Chinese denied the Kitty Hawk entry to Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor, where the ship was seeking refuge from building seas and deteriorating weather.
Chinese harassment of the U.S. Navy has not been confined to the Kitty Hawk. On March 4, 2009, a Chinese Bureau of Fisheries Patrol vessel used a spotlight to illuminate the USNS Victorious and crossed the American vessel’s bow at a range of 1,400 yards at night without notice or warning. The next day, a Chinese Y-12 maritime surveillance aircraft conducted 12 fly-bys of the Victorious at low altitude.
In the same week, a Chinese frigate approached the USNS Impeccable and proceeded to cross its bow at a range of approximately 100 yards. Two hours later, a Chinese Y-12 conducted 11 fly-bys of the Impeccable at low altitude. Two days later, five Chinese ships surrounded and harassed the Impeccable in the South China Sea.
In an April 2009 incident that foreshadowed the recent ramming of a Japanese Coast Guard boat by a Chinese “fishing” trawler, two Chinese fishing vessels came dangerously close to a U.S. military ship in the Yellow Sea off the coast of China, one of several similar incidents that have taken place according to Navy officials.
Chinese conventional, nuclear attack, and ballistic missile submarines, new “carrier killer” missiles and under-construction aircraft carriers are being deployed to limit the operating areas of American air and naval forces with an intent to weaken the bond between the United States and its regional friends and allies, such as South Korea. If America does not immediately reverse the decline of its naval fleet, in a future crisis, China might simply inform the U.S. president that sending a carrier to South Korea or some other hot spot in the region is no longer an option. Unlike today, the U.S. may not have the capability to ignore such an order. That would be a sad day indeed for the United States and its allies.
Robert C. O’Brien served as a United States Representative to the 60th Session of the UN General Assembly. He is the Managing Partner of the Los Angeles office of Arent Fox. His commentaries are available at www.robertcobrien.com and he can be followed on Twitter @robertcobrien.