Recently, I had the opportunity to join a bipartisan congressional delegation on a fact-finding mission to various nations circling the Pacific Rim. We were mostly House Armed Services committee members, focusing on the military status of our friends and possible foes in the region. Here are several key impressions I received:
First, China for all its growing influence and prosperity is alienating its neighbors. Sure, it invests in and trades with other countries, but it's always out for itself. When a natural disaster strikes, America, Australia, New Zealand, and others give generously while China stands aside. Most disturbingly to its neighbors in the South China Sea, China has taken possession of islands and features claimed by others who have more proximity, history, and right of claim. This sea is a center of energy and fishing, and half the world's merchant tonnage flows through it. China has poured staggering amounts of concrete and sand onto tiny atolls to build long runways, barracks, and military depots.
When we met with the defense minister and deputy speaker of Vietnam, their frustration with China was evident, but so was their resolve to refrain from anything smacking of force against a nation whose military might dwarfs their own. Vietnam has obviously been a Communist cohort with China since the fall of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), but it is now exploring capitalism and closer ties with the U.S., a stunning reversal.
Second, North Korea intends serious trouble for South Korea and everyone else in the region. It values regime preservation above all else. It uses aggression and provocation in a calculated way. As one top analyst told us in the headquarters of U.S. Forces in South Korea, North Korea displays, "tactical unpredictability and strategic predictability."
Seoul, with a greater metropolitan area population of 25 million people and a skyline of never-ending high rises, is within range of North Korea's long-range artillery. In a conflict, Seoul and the rest of South Korea can expect tens of thousands of rounds of high-explosives. And the threat of nuclear weapons is on top of that.
U.S. Forces leadership, with their Republic of Korea counterparts, briefed us extensively on their status.
Much was classified, but some I can share. They have a detailed and comprehensive plan of immediately countering the North Korean threat, of "fighting tonight," should a conflict arise, God forbid. A key component of this plan is the recently installed THAAD missile defense system, which was just tested again successfully for the 14th time in a row.
North Korea and China hate THAAD - North Korea because THAAD could shoot down their theater-range, nuclear-tipped missiles, and China because it wants to drive wedges between the U.S. and its allies in the region.
The Pacific Ocean is amazingly large. It contains 30 percent of the Earth's surface, more than all the land masses on earth.
Flying around it seems to take forever. This "tyranny of distance" plays to China, which considers the region to be its backyard, and hobbles the U.S., which has long supply chains to get anything there.
Our briefing by Adm. Harry Harris, four-star commander at Pacific Command, was as insightful a briefing as I have ever had. Adm. Harris, despite being the Navy "Old Goat," will be moving to landlocked Colorado Springs upon his upcoming retirement.
My deepest impression, however, is that we have excellent intelligence and military assets, as well as friends throughout the Pacific Rim. Not including our West Coast, we have Australia and New Zealand, where we stopped, our own soil on Hawaii, Guam, and even Alaska and other places more remote. But most of all, America has some of its very best military and intelligence personnel in the whole world based in the Pacific.
One example is Brig. Gen. Lansing Pilch, who accompanied us at Osan Air Force Base in South Korea where he is vice commander of the Seventh Air Force. He is a 1993 graduate of the Air Force Academy. His mother was a teacher of the year for Colorado a few years back, and she taught at the academy. Gen. Pilch's only regret at his recent promotion is that he told me his new duties will not allow him to personally fly and lead fighters, including the F-22, nearly as much as he used to.
It is determined and dedicated people like Gen. Pilch and Adm. Harris who fill the ranks of our military all over the world, especially in the dangerous hot spots along the Pacific Rim. This is why we can sleep easier tonight.
Doug Lamborn is the U.S. representative for Colorado's 5th Congressional District.