By Sue Pleming
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military will conduct an anti-submarine warfare exercise with South Korea early next month, sending a message to the North that Washington is committed to defending its ally, the Pentagon said on Wednesday.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the joint exercise, which is likely to annoy regional power China, would be conducted off the western coast of the Korean Peninsula and was aimed at defending against "sub-surface" attacks, particularly following the sinking of one of the south's warships in March.
"This exercise certainly sends a clear message to North Korea that the U.S. is committed to the defense of the Republic of Korea," Whitman told reporters. "Our commitment is unequivocal."
Asked about China's likely negative reaction, Whitman said Beijing had no reason to view the joint series of exercises as a threat to its security.
"These exercises are intended to deter North Korea from future destabilizing attacks such as that which occurred with Cheonan," he said, referring to the sinking of the South Korean warship earlier this year, which was blamed on Pyongyang.
The North has denied involvement in the sinking of the Cheonan, which killed 46 sailors, and sees the latest string of joint exercises as a provocation by its neighbor and Washington.
After Seoul competed drills near a disputed maritime border off the west coast this month, the North retaliated by firing a barrage of artillery shells in the same area.
Relations across the divided peninsula have become more fraught following the attack on the Cheonan and there also is growing concern in Washington over the North's increasingly unpredictable behavior.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week that recent provocations by the North should be seen in the context of tensions surrounding the succession of leader Kim Jong-il, who is expected to hand over power to his youngest son.
Gates said Kim's youngest son was probably seeking to "earn his stripes" with the North Korean military and he was concerned that there were more attacks ahead.
The latest military exercise, planned for early September, followed a visit by Gates and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Seoul last month, Whitman said.
The exercise will focus on anti-submarine warfare tactics, techniques and procedures and was designed specifically to improve the readiness and proficiency of U.S. and South Korean forces against potential sub-surface attacks, he said.
Whitman said the exercise was still in the planning stages and declined to provide details on which U.S. ships might be involved or the scope or length of the exercise.
As the North's only major ally, China has called the U.S. drills a threat to both its security and regional stability.
After a joint U.S.-South Korea naval drill in the Sea of Japan last month, China conducted its own heavily publicized military exercises.