The aircraft carriers USS Nimitz, USS Theodore Roosevelt, and USS Ronald Reagan—three of the most powerful warships in the world—have now converged on the western Pacific in a mighty show of force on the eve of President Trump’s 10-day trip to Asia. The three carriers, along with their accompanying cruisers, destroyers, and submarines—all armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles or other advanced munitions—are capable of raining immense destructive force on any nation targeted by the commander in chief. Not since 2007 has there been such a concentration of US firepower in the Asia-Pacific region. There can be only two plausible explanations for this extraordinary naval buildup: to provide Trump with the sort of military extravaganza he seems to enjoy; and/or to prepare for a pre-emptive military strike on North Korea.
First, about the carriers: Normally, the Pentagon stations one carrier and its support group in the western Pacific, with its homeport in Yokosuka, Japan; at present, that vessel is the Ronald Reagan. In addition, the United States has kept one carrier group in the Indian Ocean to provide air support for Army and Marine Corps ground forces in Iraq; until recently that had been the Nimitz. At present, however, the Nimitz has departed the Indian Ocean and is in the Pacific before heading back to its homeport in Washington, while its replacement ship, the Theodore Roosevelt, is also in the Pacific on its way to the Indian Ocean. But for now, all three are massed in the Pacific. The Pentagon says this is a coincidence, but it’s hard to take that seriously.
This convergence is occurring against the backdrop of other developments that all seem to narrow the chances for finding a peaceful outcome to the current standoff between the United States and North Korea. Although the North Koreans have not tested any long-range ballistic missiles or nuclear devices for some six weeks now—very possibly out of a fear of antagonizing China (its sole remaining ally) during the 19th Communist Party Congress (now concluded)—they have shown every indication of doing so again in the future and, indeed, are talking of an above-ground nuclear test.
At the same time, the Trump administration has adopted an even more belligerent stance toward Pyongyang, both through words—largely via the president’s Twitter account—and through military moves. At the United Nations in September, Trump said of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime,” warning that if the North attacked the United States or its allies, “we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” When North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho condemned Trump’s words, the president retorted, via Twitter, “If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won’t be around much longer!”
Although Trump spoke at the UN in terms of defensive action, his statements have on occasion hinted at a willingness to employ force in an offensive manner, to destroy North Korean rockets before they are launched or to destroy larger elements of the regime’s military and governing capacity. “Presidents and their administrations have been talking to North Korea for 25 years, agreements made and massive amounts of money paid…hasn’t worked, agreements violated before the ink was dry, makings fools of U.S. negotiators,” he tweeted on October 7, referring to past US efforts to negotiate the denuclearization of the North. “Sorry, but only one thing will work!” Asked later that day to explain what he meant by that, Trump told reporters, “You’ll figure that out pretty soon.”