The U.S. and South Korea are running joint military exercises off the Korean peninsula in an attempt to discourage North Korean military aggression-- seen, for example, in the sinking the South Korean vessel Cheonan in March. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says the war games "are designed to send a clear message to North Korea that its aggressive behavior must stop." Friday, North Korea threatened a "physical response" if the exercises are not halted. Will the war games ultimately work? What diplomatic subtexts are in play?

  • North Korea's Threat  "The regime did not specify what that response might be," The Guardian's Justin McCurry reports, "but said it interpreted the launch on Sunday of four days of naval and air drills in the Sea of Japan as another sign of US 'hostility'."
In recent weeks, a growing chorus of protest has come from Beijing, stoked in part by nationalist sentiment at home. ... Yet ultimately, experts say, current Chinese posturing is just the surface tension of a far greater and slower geopolitical shift. For decades along this rim of the Pacific, a de facto Pax Americana has reigned--U.S. bases and carrier groups guaranteed security for a number of nations finding their feet after World War II, keeping sea lanes open and allowing trade to flourish. But that implicit hegemony is being steadily challenged by an ascendant China, charged by a feeling of historical grievance and an eagerness to assert itself on the global stage.
  • Subtext is U.S. vs Chinese Regional Influence, Commentary's Jillian Melchior agrees. "The biggest risk is not military but political: China is trying to assert sea control; Sino-U.S. relations are already rocky, especially given Obama's adherence to an arms deal with Taiwan; under a new prime minister, Japan is questioning whether to tilt its national-security strategy toward Beijing or toward Washington; South Korea is determining how steadfastly the United States intends to defend it from its hostile Northern neighbor; and North Korea wants to know what it can get away with."
  • U.S. Emphasis on Nukes Endangers South Korea  K.G.S. analyst John McReary warns that the U.S., which is clearly responding to North Korea's nuclear program first and the Cheonan second, is sending a message that such conventional attacks will be tolerated as long as North Korea disarms its nuclear weapons. "This might look like statesmanship in the U.S.," he writes, "but in the Far East it could be interpreted as a green light. ... Arguably, one set of lessons for South Korea would be that in the event of a North Korean provocation, the Republic of Korea forces must handle it on its own. In the event of a larger attack, its forces and US forces in South Korea must be prepared to fight as they are for up to four months, while US leaders deliberate."
  • Lots of Military Exercises Heighten Chance of War  "This is a worrying period indeed," The Economist frets. China has staged its own war games and North Korea is not backing down. This week "may mark the start of a dangerous new period in which the North seeks to mount direct attacks on the South."