CAMP RED CLOUD, South Korea — Joints Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen talked tough about North Korea here Wednesday, but he said China’s actions of late have given him pause.
“I’ve moved from being curious about what they’re doing, to being concerned about what they’re doing,” Mullen said of China, in comments to about 300 soldiers at a town hall-like meeting here.
“I see a fairly significant investment in high-end equipment – satellites, ships … anti-ship missiles, obviously high-end aircraft and all those kinds of things,” he said. “They are (also) shifting from a focus on their ground forces to focus on their navy … and their air force.
“It is the (lack of) transparency … with respect to China that is probably most vexing, because it is difficult to figure out where they’re headed,” he added. “I’d like to have a conversation to see where they’re going, and right now I can’t do that.”
Mullen’s comments reiterate a statement he made last month in Washington and reflect the continuing escalation of tensions in the Pacific region, where the U.S. and South Korea are preparing for a large-scale military exercise next week designed as a show of strength to North Korea, and as retribution for the North’s alleged role in the March 26 sinking of the Cheonan warship that left 46 South Korean sailors dead.
A South Korea-led international team of investigators determined that a torpedo fired from a North Korean submarine brought down the Cheonan, but the North has denied any involvement in the incident.
China – North Korea’s most important ally – reportedly played a major role in the watering down of a United Nations Security Council statement issued earlier this month which stopped short of directly blaming the North for the Cheonan incident.
It has also been widely reported that Chinese officials were strongly opposed to the U.S. sending the aircraft carrier USS George Washington into the Yellow Sea and close to China’s eastern waters, as part of any military exercise. Ultimately, the U.S. and South Korea decided the George Washington would be among 20 ships and submarines and 200 aircraft sent to the Sea of Japan — on the eastern side of the Korean peninsula — for the four-day “Invincible Spirit” exercise that starts Sunday.
U.S. officials have roundly denied China had anything to do with the decision where to stage the drill, adding that future exercises will be held in the Yellow Sea.
Meanwhile, Stars and Stripes reported this week that Navy officials are privately alarmed about China’s continuing development of a medium-range anti-ship ballistic missile capable of hitting a moving aircraft carrier from 1,200 to 1,800 miles away. U.S. military officials fear the Dong Feng 21D, as it is called, could sway the balance of power and relations in the Pacific.
“Right now, our military-to-military relationship with the Chinese is cut off,” Mullen told his Camp Red Cloud audience Wednesday. “It’s really important that we know each other in ways that we just don’t right now.”
That said, Mullen added, “A peaceful, rising China that generates good outcomes globally is a great thing for the region and for the globe,” and China, the U.S. and other countries must work together to bring North Korea in line.
“There’s an awful lot of focus regionally and internationally to have this outcome be one that ensures North Korea recognizes that this is not going to be tolerated,” Mullen said. “That their act of killing 46 sailors is something that is a tragedy, unacceptable by any standards (of) international norms.”
Mullen said the international community must “continue to put pressure on that government to change its behavior. That is not an easy outcome to generate. (North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is) a pretty unpredictable guy.
“We are all concerned … about what happens in Pyongyang and where this leadership goes,” he said. “The last thing in the world I want to see happen – anybody wants to see happen – is to have conflict break out.”