22 February 2019
A perception that the US is just bluffing may embolden North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to escalate his brinkmanship, thus worsening tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Photo: Reuters
A perception that the US is just bluffing may embolden North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to escalate his brinkmanship, thus worsening tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Photo: Reuters

Trump’s missing ‘armada’: Strategic smokescreen or bluffing?

Throughout history, deceptive tricks have often been employed by military strategists in wartime to confuse their enemies in order to gain the upper hand over them.

However, if poorly conceived and executed, a tactic intended to deceive enemies could easily turn into a gaffe that would backfire and in turn strengthen rather than weaken them.

We are referring to the recent misinformation by Washington over its naval deployment to the Korean Peninsula.

On April 9, the US government claimed that an aircraft carrier battle group led by the USS Carl Vinson was on its way to northeast Asia at full speed in response to the escalating North Korean nuclear aggression. It also said two more aircraft carriers, the USS Ronald Reagan and Nimitz, had also set off toward the region to strengthen US military presence off the Korean Peninsula.

As US President Trump boasted during a TV interview early last week, “we are sending an armada there, very powerful… and I’ll say this, Kim [Jong-un] is making a very big mistake.”

Ironically, however, as it turns out, it was actually Trump himself who was making a big mistake. According to the information released by the Pentagon 10 days later, the USS Carl Vinson battle group wasn’t steaming toward the Korean Peninsula at all.

Instead, it was actually headed in the opposite direction towards the Indian Ocean to take part in a scheduled joint military exercise with the Australian navy, and won’t be able to set sail for the Korean Peninsula, if it is going to do so at all, until the end of this month at the earliest.

As far as the USS Ronald Reagan is concerned, it has actually been undergoing maintenance at the US naval base at Yokosuka in Japan over the past couple of months, and won’t be ready for deployment at least until May. In the meantime, the USS Nimitz is currently thousands of miles away from the Korean Peninsula, taking part in a training mission off the Californian coast.

As we can see, the “armada” that Trump had promised in fact never materialized. The White House later defended that certain “technical mishaps” had taken place regarding the time sequence of the deployment, thereby leading to the misinformation.

Such mishaps included the premature announcement of the naval dispatch by the US Pacific Command and the mistaken belief of Defense Secretary James Mattis that the joint military exercise with the Australian navy had been cancelled.

So far, it remains unclear whether the bizarre episode about Trump’s missing fleets was in fact an act of strategic deception or just an idiotic blunder.

However, its immediate effect is quite clear: it has reinforced the impression among Americans that all their neophyte president is good at is bluffing and blustering his way through diplomatic crises, and stiffened Pyongyang’s resolve in pressing ahead with its nuclear program as it appears that the US is nothing more than a paper tiger that only talks tough but doesn’t follow through.

The fact that the US president himself didn’t even know where his own fleets were actually headed would only embolden Kim Jong-un to escalate his brinkmanship, which may as a result further fuel tensions on the Korean Peninsula. And in the worst-case scenario, it could lead to miscalculation on the part of Pyongyang and eventually, war.

In our opinion, chances are the entire saga is the result of a communications mix-up within the US government and a faux pas on the part of Donald Trump. After all, he is such a loose canon and a highly unpredictable leader that in many cases, even his subordinates can’t figure him out.

The current confrontation on the Korean Peninsula is so delicate and complicated that any wrong judgment or reckless move by either Washington or Pyongyang could lead to big trouble.

And if anything, the bluffing and boasting by Trump, whether they are intended as strategic deception or not, would work against the peaceful resolution of the ongoing crisis.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 21

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Hong Kong Economic Journal

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe