China, North Korea Wild Cards in Asia-Pacific

February 12, 2015
By Robert K. Ackerman
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One nation is pushing outward methodically, the other is too irrational to predict.

The future of peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region may be determined by the actions or inactions of China and North Korea. China is flexing its muscles and projecting power far beyond its traditional realm, but North Korea poses a bigger threat by nature of its irrational leadership.

Former military flag officers and a civilian regional expert discussed the ramifications of those two nations in a panel at West 2015, being held in San Diego, February 10-12. Panel moderator Dr. David M. Finkelstein, vice president and director, China Studies, Center for Naval Analyses, noted that the administration listed contested maritime territorial claims—mostly involving China—and a provocative North Korea as the two big threats to peace in the Asia-Pacific region.

However, Adm. Timothy J. Keating, USN (Ret.), former commander, U.S. Pacific Command, disagreed. North Korea sits alone atop the list; the contested maritime claims “don’t cost me any sleep,” he said.

Vice Adm. Doug Crowder, USN (Ret.), former commander, Seventh Fleet, said the larger issue is China’s claims, its building structures on disputed lands and use of intimidation “to pursue incredible claims.” And Finkelstein noted that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) now is viewed by China’s leadership as being on the point end of the spear for projecting Chinese power.

Rear Adm. Douglas McAneny, USN (Ret.), former commander, Submarine Force U.S. Pacific Fleet, said that there is no doubt that, given the trajectory it is on, there is going to be a much more muscular China in the region. However, the admiral said engaging China has produced positive results. He noted that in 2014, China hosted a western Pacific naval forum in which Adm. Wu Shengli, commander of the PLAN, was a major player. Adm. McAneny would not have expected that just a few years ago.

Adm. McAneny offered that the most fascinating country is North Korea. He had hoped the new leadership would be more worldly and willing to reach out to others, but instead it has become more bizarre. He worries about a nuclear North Korea.


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