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North Korea Tops PACOM’s Challenges; PRC Comes in Third

Posted by Colin Clark on

CAPITOL HILL: The U.S. relationship with China is not the top priority for the likely commander of Pacific Command. Instead, North Korea tops the list, followed by America’s ties with its Pacific allies. China, as a country, comes third.

The listing of priorities clearly reflects the volatile nature of the North Korean regime, made only less predictable now that the country has a young and completely untested leader who appears heavily reliant on the country’s senior military leadership. It is especially interesting in light of all the talk about our “tilt” toward the Pacific, with many seeing this and the adoption of AirSea Battle as clear indicators we are targeting a rising China. Locklear’s written testimony seems to offer a much more nuanced picture. For example, he made clear that, while the U.S. is worried about North Korea, there may be unlooked for opportunities that arise from the secretive country’s leadership change.

“While the ongoing leadership transition creates a period of uncertainty, it may also present opportunities for the Peninsula to advance to a greater level of stability and security,” Adm. Samuel Locklear, nominated as head of Pacific Command, said in written responses to advance policy questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee.

In a clear signal to the Chinese, Locklear writes that the U.S. will “remain steadfast in our efforts to mature the military-to-military relationship with China.” His written replies are also indicative of the Obama administration’s approach to China, treating it as a competitor, not a likely opponent.

In his list of priorities, Locklear places first maintaining a “credible deterrent posture and reassuring military presence in the Asia-Pacific.” Second comes deterring North Korean aggression and countering their well-document efforts at proliferation.

Then the presumptive PACOM commander offers a neat and tidy presentation of the U.S. strategic approach in the western Pacific. We’ll “emphasize” our existing alliances and “expand” our links with “emerging partners” in the region. That will be bolstered by our investment in “a long-term strategic partnership with India” so that country can serve as a “regional economic anchor and provider of security” in the Indian Ocean.

Parallel to the relationship with India, the US seeks “greater clarity” of China’s strategic intention to “reduce the prospects for regional instability.”

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a strong supporter of the F-35, pressed Locklear on the implications of the J-20 and Russia’s own faltering efforts at building a fifth-generation fighter, asking if they might change the region’s balance of power. Locklear, reflecting his status as someone who’s not confirmed and who hasn’t been dealing with PACOM issues in his current job, offered a noncommittal answer, while noting that the Chinese and Russian aircraft are certainly worth watching.

What do you think?