Crisis Management in the Pacific: Nuclear and Maritime Confrontations

Don't look now, but a country with actual nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, as well as one of the world's largest militaries, is threatening not only one of America's closest allies but the U.S. itself. And it's not named Iran.

Put that together with a new Chinese leadership looking to create a strong identity for itself while its neighbors on the South China Sea and the East China Sea resist hegemonic moves and our fated fixations in the Middle East and Central Asia, while still significant, are looking a little dated.

The general staff of the Korean People's Army on Wednesday declared that U.S. efforts to oppose them will be "smashed by cutting-edge smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear strike means." And further, that "The merciless operation of revolutionary armed forces in this regard has been finally examined and ratified."

It's hard to take rhetoric like that seriously. It plays like bad comic book dialogue. But North Korea, one of the last Communist regimes on the planet, has at least some serious capability to carry out its threats. And it's paid off in the past for North Korea, which has little industry of its own, in greater international aid in a sort of protection racket.

But the pattern of threatening moves and statements resulting in little action -- though increasing North Korean nuclear and missile capability -- may be running its course, hence the ratcheting up of those threatening moves and statements. It isn't easy to believe that North Korea wants a war. Though it is possible that its half-century ruling dynasty, all too aware of its lack of economic vitality, fears a potentially inevitable reunification. And it's not hard to see how an overheated crisis could end in war.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry, meeting with his counterpart, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, in Washington on Tuesday, offered full U.S. support to the Philippine government's move to bring wide-ranging disputes over China's claim to virtually the entire South China Sea before a United Nations arbitration tribunal under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. China continues to reject challenges to its claims by the Philippines, Vietnam, and others, and to reject multilateral negotiation with its neighbors on the South China Sea, one of the critical waterways in the world for commerce as well as home to vast fisheries and oil and natural gas deposits.

Instead of siding with specific claims by any of the other nations on the South China Sea, the U.S. is supporting an open process of negotiation and arbitration through the United Nations. It may come to something like that with regard to the confrontation between China and Japan over islands in the East China Sea.

"The Philippines is one of our five Asia-Pacific allies and a very, very important relationship at this point in time when there are tensions over the South China Sea, where we support a code of conduct," Kerry told the press. "We are deeply concerned about some of these tensions and would like to see it worked out through a process of arbitration."

The U.S. this week deployed a squadron of F/A-18 multi-role fighters to the Philippines for a week of exercises with Filipino forces as part of the two countries' mutual defense treaty.

While Kerry met with Filipino leaders, Obama continued his Asia-Pacific pivot moves by welcoming Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore to the White House. (Here's an archive of my pieces related to the Pivot.)

The U.S. and Singapore have a longtime economic and security alliance, which is being heightened through the development with multiple nations of the Trans Pacific Partnership on trade and by the stationing of a new flotilla of U.S. Navy ships in Singapore as the decade unfolds. The first of which, the littoral combat ship USS Freedom, is en route, having just made a port call in Guam.

"We have extremely close military cooperation. And I want to thank Singapore for all the facilities that they provide that allow us to maintain our effective Pacific presence," Obama said after the meeting with Prime Minister Lee, the third Asian leader to visit the White House already this year with a fourth on the way next month.

Last week, a task force of China's People's Liberation Army Navy -- including missile destroyers and the PLA Navy's most advanced amphibious landing ship with Chinese marines -- ventured into the southernmost reaches of the South China Sea to James Shoal. That's just off the coast of Malaysia but claimed by China, as part of its expansive claim to virtually all the South China Sea.

Vietnam said that a Chinese naval vessel opened fire on one of its fishing boats, setting it afire, off the Paracel Islands in another part of the South China Sea. The islands are equidistant from Vietnam and China, and in what ordinarily would be considered international waters. China denied damaging the Vietnamese fishing boat, but admitted the incident, insisting on its rights to the islands.

On Tuesday, Chinese media hailed the return of its naval task force after a voyage of 5,000 nautical miles (nearly 6,000 regular miles).

Fascinating as the moves and counter-moves already well underway in the ongoing South China Sea crisis are, they're still a good distance away from war.

If any war is impending right now, and I tend to think it's highly avoidable, it's on the Korean Peninsula.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declared Wednesday that North Korea's recent rhetoric presents "a real and clear danger" to the U.S. and its Asia-Pacific allies and says America is doing all it can to defuse the situation. That includes deploying the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-missile system to Guam, an American territory and set of bases in the middle of the Pacific.

Tension continued to build before that as North Korea stopped South Korean workers from reporting to work in a joint industrial complex six miles north of the border. Some 120 corporations have facilities there. Many South Korean workers remain in the complex.

This came after the new North Korean leader raised the Hermit State's level of bellicose rhetoric up several notches, declaring a "state of war" in the wake of a frosty international reception to his testing of a more sophisticated nuclear weapon.

The central committee of North Korea's ruling Workers Party had already delivered a warning over the weekend. Nuclear weapons, it declared, are "the nation's life" and will not be traded even for "billions of dollars."

It's still mostly talk, and the flipping of some switches to bring rocket systems to a greater degree of readiness, but given the new leader's youth and inexperience the situation is volatile.

There's no real sign of large-scale military mobilization in North Korea. But missile attacks wouldn't require that; the response to retaliation, if it is symmetrical, might. But not if the response is asymmetrical.

The U.S. has re-purposed radar systems and deployed two Aegis missile destroyers and a unit of F-22 stealth fighters to the vicinity in the tense crisis on the Korean Peninsula. The ships are USS John S. McCain, named for the four-star admirals who were father and grandfather of Senator John McCain, and USS Stephen Decatur, named for a pioneer of the post-Revolutionary War Navy.

Through all of this, there is one great irony of American governance. When the U.S. Senate had its confirmation hearing on the nomination of Hagel to be secretary of defense, these matters were scarcely mentioned.

The transcript of that Senate confirmation hearing reveals only two brief references by senators to North Korea.

There was only one reference to China, which is merely the only other potential superpower on the planet. And that was a very bizarre reference, from Texas Senator Ted Cruz, having nothing to do with China itself. Instead, he demanded to know if Hagel had traveled to China in a group which included a critic of the Israeli government. Which he had not.

Hopefully, we won't have to pay for this sort of short-sightedness going forward.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ...

William Bradley Huffington Post Archive