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Jim Talent On The Defense Posture We’re Taking In An Increasingly Dangerous World

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HH: Joined now as I am on Mondays when I’m lucky by Jim Talent, former United States Senator, a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation. We normally talk about some aspect of Defense on Mondays, and today, Senator Talent, I want to focus on China. But I have to note that the Norks and the South Koreans are exchanging volleys of artillery out into the empty ocean waters. What’s that tell you about the degree of tension on the Peninsula and across the entire South China Sea?

JT: Very high. I’m very concerned about North Korea. It’s becoming increasingly unstable. And as that happens, the possibility of regime collapse grows. And while I’d certainly like to see the regime go, that would very likely result in Chinese troops entering from the north, and South Korean and American troops, probably, having to enter from the south, and there’s all kinds of issues with that, of course. Or if Kim feels like he’s going down, he might try something. So it’s very unstable, probably more so than it’s been in decades, and this is another example of it.

HH: They’ve also threatened another nuclear test tomorrow, on Tuesday, and I suppose these are now inevitable, but should foreshadow what will happen if Iran ever gets its hands on this stuff.

JT: Exactly. I say to people that Iran will be North Korea on steroids, because North Korea, at least, is surrounded by stable governments. And while the Chinese are their patrons, the Chinese don’t want them to go too far, while Iran is not surrounded by stable governments. And if Iran gets nuclear weapons, then everybody expects that others in the Middle East will get them as well. You know, at the Heritage Foundation, we game theoried this. We tested this a few years, what happens when there’s a nuclear confrontation involving multilateral parties, particularly unstable regimes without good launch protocols, and the possibility of a launch goes way up.

HH: Yeah, Senator Talent, I spent last week on the Weekly Standard cruise reading two books. One is George Will’s book on A Nice Little Place On The North Side, and I’ll talk with George Will next hour. But the other was Robert Kaplan’s Asia’s Cauldron. And you’ve been writing a lot about China and the South China Sea, so it’s not a surprise to you, probably. Kaplan is deeply concerned, and it’s probably not a surprise that the PRC upped their Defense spending 12% this year.

JT: Yeah, and that’s just what we know about. I mean, they’re spending a whole lot more than that. We don’t know exactly how much. And they’re purposeful about it, too. You know, they have some, they define the national interest in a way that actually makes perfect sense when you consider what they’re trying to do, and there are two major reasons why they’re pushing. One of them is they just see themselves as the hegemon in the East and the South China Sea, and historically, they have been. And they’re trying to reassert their primacy in the area. We don’t know exactly what that would mean, but it would likely mean trouble for freedom of trade and travel, and trouble for countries the United States is bound by treaty to defend. And then also the regime, it postures to its people as the leaders in achieving, in reasserting Chinese nationalism, and stabilizes itself that way. And so you know, I’m concerned that if the economy slows down, they may become even more provocative in an attempt to sort of direct discontent outwards.

HH: I’m talking with former United States Senator Jim Talent about China at this point. Now when I was out of the country, I was also disappointed to see Speaker Boehner announce that they would not be changing the caps for next year’s budget from the Murray-Ryan deal that was struck in December, despite the fact that the PRC upped their budget so dramatically, and then the Crimean thing. Do you think the House and the Senate have to respond in some way?

JT: Well, yeah, it would be nice to have some stronger presidential leadership on it. As you know, the President did propose an increase nowhere near enough, and he’s conditioned it on getting revenue from closing loopholes in other areas. And we’re just not seeing anybody in Washington take the lead. I was disappointed with that as well. We can’t go on like this. I mean, we’re creating vacuums all over the world where conflict is rising. And we’re going to end up continuing to forfeit our national interests, or possibly getting sucked into a conflict as these risks escalate.

HH: One of the things you wrote at National Review late last year is that Defense planning has to be driven by strategy instead of budgets, and I noted that at the Adelson primary over the weekend, where a bunch of Republican governors went down, the Republican Jewish Committee hosted by Sheldon Adelson at the Venetian. They all talked a good game. They’re all presidential candidates. But none of them called on the House and the Senate to spend the kind of money, you’ve recommended, for example, three Virginia class submarines be bought every year instead of two. I love this unmanned, underwater vehicle idea of yours, and these missile corvettes. I’m not quite sure what they do, but if they will annoy the Chinese, I’m all for them. When is our Congressional leadership going to notice that the national leadership is talking strong Defense?

JT: Yeah, and I think you’re going to see more of that in the next presidential campaign. And one of the things that these candidates need to focus on is that if they succeed and become president, the day after they’re sworn in, they’re going to have a, well, I don’t want to say different, but they’re going to have a very focused view of the American military, because every time there’s a crisis, the first question anybody asks is where’s the nearest American aircraft carrier task force. I mean, we can’t do anything in foreign policy, Hugh, without power. Without power, our threats aren’t taken seriously, our promises are disregarded, our diplomacy doesn’t work. Sanctions by themselves don’t work. And we are declining, and now very rapidly, particularly vis-à-vis the Chinese. And if we expect to keep the lid on an East and South China Sea, we’re going to have to have presence, and we’re going to have to have the capability of deterring them.

HH: Now I began the show by talking with Senator Inhofe, who’s the ranking Republican on the key committee about the A-10, the Tomahawk and the Hellfire missiles. And you know, and his responses are as I expected, but do you think those get at least mandated by the Congress in the rewrite of the Appropriations bills?

JT: Well, I would hope so, and you know, that’s not even a budgetary measure in particular, although you know, the budget looms over everything. I mean, the budget’s, it’s like $100 billion dollars a year less than Bob Gates recommended in the spring of 2011, and so they’re looking for savings everywhere. But I mean, the Tomahawks cost about a half a million dollars a copy. And you know, that’s just not that much considering the offensive firepower that it gives us. The Hellfire is much, much less than that. So they’re planning a new super sort of precise missile, and maybe they’ll get it five to ten years from now. But in the meantime, we need firepower. And the Tomahawks are a hugely important part of that.

HH: All right, were you surprised by that? I mean, when you talk about hardening our Pacific infrastructure in response to China, China must be looking at this budget and the specifics of things like zeroing out the Tomahawks, and saying these guys are just leaving.

JT: Yes, look, it’s no accident that these provocations are occurring. I think a big part of the reason is they’re seeing how we’re cutting our Defense while they’re building up theirs. I’m on the U.S. China Commission, which is a commission that monitors the relationship between the United States and China, and we visited Japan last year. The first question we got from the ministry of defense is when are you going to end that sequester? And the message it’s carrying is exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time.

HH: So last question, Senator Talent. The Chinese, would they be resentful of us if we matched them? Or are they more sort of responsive to our weakness than they would be to our strength?

JT: Everybody respects strength. I mean, your friend, it gives confidence to your friends. I think a big increase in the Defense budget will cause a huge sigh of relief around the world, certainly among our allies. And even our adversaries would recognize okay, you know, the United States is a power now that we have to deal with. I think it would be a tremendously stabilizing thing.

HH: More on that next week. Senator Jim Talent of the Heritage Foundation, thank you, Senator.

End of interview.

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