Recently, I had the opportunity to join a bipartisan congressional delegation on a fact-finding mission to various nations circling the Pacific Rim. We were mostly House Armed Services committee members, focusing on the military status of our friends and possible foes in the region. Here are several key impressions I received:
First, China for all its growing influence and prosperity is alienating its neighbors. Sure, it invests in and trades with other countries, but it’s always out for itself. When a natural disaster strikes, America, Australia, New Zealand, and others give generously while China stands aside. Most disturbingly to its neighbors in the South China Sea, China has taken possession of islands and features claimed by others who have more proximity, history, and right of claim. This sea is a center of energy and fishing, and half the world’s merchant tonnage flows through it. China has poured staggering amounts of concrete and sand onto tiny atolls to build long runways, barracks, and military depots.
When we met with the defense minister and deputy speaker of Vietnam, their frustration with China was evident, but so was their resolve to refrain from anything smacking of force against a nation whose military might dwarfs their own. Vietnam has obviously been a Communist cohort with China since the fall of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), but it is now exploring capitalism and closer ties with the U.S., a stunning reversal.
Second, North Korea intends serious trouble for South Korea and everyone else in the region. It values regime preservation above all else. It uses aggression and provocation in a calculated way. As one top analyst told us in the headquarters of U.S. Forces in South Korea, North Korea displays, “tactical unpredictability and strategic predictability.”
Seoul, with a greater metropolitan area population of 25 million people and a skyline of never-ending high rises, is within range of North Korea’s long-range artillery. In a conflict,…