A U.S. Admiral Gets It on China and North Korea

by Michael Auslin

In Senate testimony this week, Navy admiral Samuel Locklear, the commander of U.S. Pacific Command, revealed that he hasn’t talked with his Chinese counterparts for at least the past two weeks as the North Korean crisis has raged. Some senators, such as New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, urged Locklear (and by extension, the administration) to let the Chinese know our expectations for their role in curbing North Korea’s threats and aggression.

The problem is, we’ve tried that for years. Beijing cannot possibly be ignorant of what America wants it to do (use its economic influence to pressure Pyongyang and modify their behavior). Clearly, China just has absolutely no interest in doing so. In fact, just last month, when the latest U.N. sanctions were passed in response to the North’s most recent nuclear test, Beijing again watered them down. 

Although Locklear stated that he expected such communications with Beijing to happen at higher levels, perhaps he is on to something. Like his predecessor, Admiral Robert Willard, he doesn’t seem to be rushing to try to engage the Chinese when there is little chance of a receptive hearing. Clearly, Locklear talks with Chinese military leaders (even though he has no direct counterpart), and he visited the country for four days in June 2012. No American commander turns down opportunities to try and improve relations with the Chinese military, no matter how little reciprocity he receives.

Yet, during this crisis, when he has been juggling deploying radars, fighters, bombers, and guided missile destroyers around the Pacific to deal with any contingency from Pyongyang, Locklear has recognized it’s not worth his time to reach out to the Chinese. That is sending the right message to Beijing, as well as to North Korea. American energy should be focused on presenting as credible a military posture as possible, regardless of what political calculations will be made in Washington, D.C., about responding to Pyongyang’s provocations. More empty talk about restraining the North is the last thing America’s overburdened and increasingly underfunded commanders need to invest in. Let’s hope this sets a pattern for the future, so that when we do talk with Beijing (and maybe even Pyongyang), it will be worth everyone’s time.

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