World / Politics

White House defends portrayal of Korean Peninsula-bound 'armada' but snafu draws jibes


President Donald Trump’s administration on Wednesday denied being misleading about a U.S. carrier strike group’s push toward the Korean Peninsula, saying it never gave an arrival date and that the ships were still on their way.

When Trump boasted early last week that he had sent an “armada” as a warning to North Korea, the USS Carl Vinson strike group was still far from the Korean Peninsula, and headed in the opposite direction.

The U.S. military’s Pacific Command explained on Tuesday that the strike group first had to complete a shorter-than-initially planned period of training with Australia but was now heading toward the Western Pacific.

“The president said that we have an armada going towards the peninsula. That’s a fact. It happened. It is happening, rather,” said White House spokesman Sean Spicer.

He referred further queries about the deployment timetable to the Pentagon.

The U.S. military initially said in a statement dated April 10 that Adm. Harry Harris, the commander of Pacific Command, directed the Vinson strike group “to sail north and report on station in the Western Pacific.”

But the strike group first headed elsewhere, On April 15, the U.S. Navy even published a photo showing the Vinson transiting the Sunda Strait on its way to drills with Australia.

Reuters and other news outlets reported on April 11 that the movement would take more than a week. But the Navy, for security reasons, says it does not report future operational locations of its ships.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis looked to address confusion over the issue on Wednesday, telling reporters traveling with him in the Middle East that the alteration in the Vinson’s schedule had been disclosed in the interest of transparency.

“We are doing exactly what we said we were going to do. She will be on her way,” he said.

The strike group’s commander, Rear Adm. Jim Kirby, said in a Facebook post this week that the deployment had even been extended 30 days “to provide a persistent presence in the waters off the Korean Peninsula.”

A Trump administration official told Reuters on Tuesday that Washington was concerned about the possibility of some kind of North Korean provocation around the time of the South Korean election on May 9.

“There is precedent going back to the 1990s and early 2000s where there are provocations timed to South Korean political events,” he said.

America’s allies in Asia meanwhile were silent on Wednesday over confusion about a U.S. aircraft carrier group that was supposed to be headed toward North Korea in a show of force, but was actually completing training exercises in Australia.

But many Chinese took to social media to joke about it.

“American imperialism is a paper tiger,” said one user on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.

“The aircraft carrier was sleep-walking,” said another.

U.S. President Donald Trump said last week that he had ordered the strike group to head for Korean waters amid talk that unpredictable North Korea was likely to conduct a nuclear or long-range ballistic missile test.

“We cannot comment on details of U.S. operation of its assets,” a military official said in Seoul.

North Korea remains technically at war with the South and the United States because the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice and no peace treaty was signed.

Japan, the other main U.S. ally in the region, did not comment on the mixup while China’s foreign ministry declined comment at a regular briefing.

Singapore-based security expert Ian Storey said countries in the region would have found the confusion over the strike group’s location “unsettling and perplexing.”

“This disconnect between the White House and Pacific Command may be an operational issue but it is distinctly odd,” said Storey, who is based at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute.

“The fact that the Carl Vinson strike group was not in the vicinity of the Korean Peninsula undermines the Trump administration’s tough approach towards Pyongyang.”

North Korea did not refer to the mixup but said the United States and its allies “should not mess with us.”

“A nuclear powered aircraft carrier that the United States and its puppet group are loudly advertising is nothing more than a pile of scrap metal in the face of our revolutionary forces’ mighty power,” said the Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party.

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