North Korea exposes weak U.S. military ties with China

Despite an active threat of nuclear war in East Asia, the top U.S. commander in the Pacific said on Tuesday that he has not talked to his Chinese military counterparts during the ongoing North Korean standoff. The revelation, made during Tuesday’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, exposes just how broken the U.S.-China military relationship remains ...

JAY DIRECTO/AFP/GettyImages
JAY DIRECTO/AFP/GettyImages
JAY DIRECTO/AFP/GettyImages

Despite an active threat of nuclear war in East Asia, the top U.S. commander in the Pacific said on Tuesday that he has not talked to his Chinese military counterparts during the ongoing North Korean standoff.

The revelation, made during Tuesday’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, exposes just how broken the U.S.-China military relationship remains despite the Obama administration’s efforts to build stronger ties with Beijing dating to 2009.

Relations between the U.S. military and China’s People’s Liberation Army have thawed in recent years. But U.S. defense leaders and commanders are frustrated that China is not doing more to help calm Pyongyang.

Despite an active threat of nuclear war in East Asia, the top U.S. commander in the Pacific said on Tuesday that he has not talked to his Chinese military counterparts during the ongoing North Korean standoff.

The revelation, made during Tuesday’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, exposes just how broken the U.S.-China military relationship remains despite the Obama administration’s efforts to build stronger ties with Beijing dating to 2009.

Relations between the U.S. military and China’s People’s Liberation Army have thawed in recent years. But U.S. defense leaders and commanders are frustrated that China is not doing more to help calm Pyongyang.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., asked U.S. Pacific Command’s Adm. Samuel Locklear if he thought the same way.

“I think that they could do more,” the four-star commander replied.

Then Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked, “Have you had any conversations with your military counterparts in China in the last couple of weeks?” Locklear, the top commander in Asia, replied,  “I have not.”

It was not until much later in the hearing that Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-NH, revived the issue, saying Locklear’s answer “troubled me.”

“It seems to me that we need to be, I would think, clearer with China as to what our expectations are because this is a danger to them,” Ayotte said. “And, also, if there is a provocation between North and South Korea and we are required to engage, or North Korea engages us, that is to the detriment of China’s security, as well.”

“So I’m wondering why you haven’t had those conversations.”

Locklear, who does not have a direct counterpart in the PLA chain-of-command, noted that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was having conversations with China on behalf of the Pentagon. Hagel discussed North Korea with Chinese Minister of National Defense General Chang Wanquan on April 2. Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey spoke in early March with Gen. Fang Fenghui, chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army.  

“I believe that, over time, we’ll progress to a state where the PACOM commander can talk to the chief of defense or the chairman can talk there in a real time. We’re not there yet.”

Indeed, even the top of the chain is barely talking.

“We’re not aware of any recent mil-to-mil contacts with China on DPRK,” said Col. David Lapan, spokesman for Chairman Dempsey. Dempsey is scheduled to visit China later this month.

Hagel’s team also said they knew of no other “high-level interaction” on North Korea. Col. Cathy Wilkinson, Defense Department spokeswoman, said “routine” military coordination has continued “through diplomatic channels.”

Locklear later said he has a hotline with Beijing for crises but not the kind of military-to-military relationships the U.S. enjoys with China’s neighbors.

“But as I’ve said to my Chinese counterparts, we need to get better at this, because I don’t have the same relationship I have with maybe the chief of defense of Japan or of Korea or of the Philippines, where we understand each other. We meet routinely. We talk through security issues. And we need to move that forward with our relationship with China,” he said.

“It’s nice to have relationships before the crisis,” replied Sen. Angus King, I-Maine.

Gen. James Thurman, U.S. Forces Korea commander, was supposed to testify alongside Locklear about the North Korea situation, but he skipped the trip to Washington in order to stay on duty in South Korea.

Levin, whose question put Locklear on the hot seat, closed the hearing by throwing the admiral a lifeline and asking if he could try to reach out and touch the Chinese.

“It could add a very important element if this military- to-military communication occurred with your Chinese counterpart,” Levin said.

“Yes, sir.”

“So that’s something you could take on?”

“I will explore it. Yes, sir.”

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron

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