Austin Bay

China's tough neighborhood has gotten just a little bit tougher for China, diplomatically and militarily, and Beijing ought to blame its own political blundering.

Consider South Korea and Vietnam, two of China's more militarily capable neighbors. During the Vietnam War, South Korean soldiers fought Hanoi's troops. Today, both countries regard that as very ancient history, and they increasingly act as de facto allies. This week, South Korea and Vietnam announced that they will strengthen bilateral defense cooperation and conduct a "strategic dialog" on defense issues. Defense cooperation includes senior officer training exchanges and defense industry collaboration. Shared senior officer training programs are a short policy step away from crafting shared defense plans.

Why the regional embrace? Start with the insight that South Korean and Vietnamese defense planners understand who and what China means by "local."

On March 5, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, addressing China's National People's Congress, observed that the Chinese armed forces' most important task is "to win local wars under Information Age conditions."

Someone needs to tell Premier Wen that even in the Information Age, the old real estate axiom ("location, location, location") still has strategic consequence. The phrase "to win local wars" galvanizes folks located in Seoul and Hanoi, especially when Beijing just boosted its defense budget 11 percent.

The Korean War was -- and is -- very much a local Chinese war. China attacked in late 1950, as U.S. forces pushed north toward the China-Korea border. This lingering conflict may be an Industrial Age relic, but South Korea knows North Korean nuclear weapons could return the peninsula to the Stone Age. China, however, continues to diplomatically shield North Korea's Stalinist regime.

Trust that both China and Vietnam remember their local war of 1979. Chinese leader Deng Xioaping declared that big China would teach little Vietnam a lesson. That border scrape left 20,000 Chinese dead. Having witnessed Vietnamese tactical and operational military superiority, Deng realized that China had a lot to learn. He accelerated China's military modernization efforts.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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