WASHINGTON — The commander of U.S. Army Pacific said Wednesday that strong land forces — not just air and naval strength — will be crucial in defending allies in the Indo-Pacific region and deterring Chinese aggression in the coming years.
Gen. Charles Flynn emphasized the importance of ground troops during a conference call to discuss existing challenges in the region and potential obstacles to implementing the command’s vision for the future.
“I contend that [the Indo-Pacific region] is not an air and maritime theater. It is a joint theater,” Flynn said. “There is a natural tendency to look at the map and think you can solve this with air and maritime power alone. My thinking on this is that the land power network and armies out here are an essential part of the solution.”
The U.S. Army Pacific’s newly released 2023 Vision Book outlines many of the challenges facing U.S. allies and interests in the Indo-Pacific region, which includes about three dozen countries across Asia and the Pacific and Indian oceans, including South Korea, Japan, China, India and Australia.
Flynn acknowledged air and naval forces are vital to protecting the region, but he added that the land component has often been overlooked.
“In my view, the security architecture that actually binds this region together is the armies,” he said. “These nations have large armies, they don’t have large navies and air forces.”
“There is a unique on-the-ground fingertip feel that you get when you’re out in the villages … out in the jungle, out in the mountains and operating amongst the people,” Flynn said. “Do you want to know what’s going on inside these countries? Ask somebody from the land force, because we are in these countries for extended periods of time. And I think we have a deeper understanding of what’s actually happening.”
Flynn said Army Pacific’s vision is in step with the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy, which was released in the fall and identifies China as the top U.S. “pacing challenge.” The Defense Department and President Joe Biden’s administration have been alarmed by various actions by China recently, such as the new security agreement that the country reached in early 2022 with the Solomon Islands, a small nation about 1,100 miles northeast of Australia. And there are many other small island countries in the region that could also be vulnerable to Chinese influence.
“The recent security agreement between the Solomon Islands and [China] underscores increased competition for influence in these island nations,” according to the Army Pacific’s vision statement.
The Indo-Pacific also includes Taiwan, which China claims as a breakaway territory. The United States has long had a strong unofficial relationship with Taiwan and has often butted heads with China about the island. The U.S. ignored threats from China, for example, when then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., visited Taiwan in 2022.
“[China] is increasingly turning to [its military] as an instrument of statecraft as it adopts more coercive and aggressive actions in the Indo-Pacific region,” the Army Pacific’s Vision Book states. “Having purportedly achieved its 2020 modernization goal, the [Chinese army] now sets its sights to 2027 with a goal to accelerate the integrated development of mechanization, informatization and intelligentization of [China’s] armed forces. If realized, this 2027 objective could give the [Chinese army] capabilities to be a more credible military tool for [China] to wield as it pursues Taiwan unification.”
Flynn acknowledged 2027 could be a key year for President Xi Jinping, China’s leader for more than a decade, to make influential decisions about Taiwan — partly due to his advancing age.
“In my view, there are decisions he is likely going to have to make [at about that year],” Flynn said of the 70-year-old Xi. “His tenure in his current role would likely require him to be thinking about what his legacy is going to be, [and] he has stated publicly and unequivocally that he intends to unify [with Taiwan].”
Flynn, who has been the commander of Army Pacific for more than two years, is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College, where he earned a master’s degree in national security and strategic studies. He is the younger brother of Michael Flynn, who was former President Donald Trump’s national security adviser for 22 days in 2017 before resigning amid reports that he misled the White House about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States. After his resignation, Michael Flynn later pleaded guilty to a felony count of making false statements to the FBI.
Gen. Charles Flynn also said Wednesday that he “wasn’t overly concerned” about the impact meetings between Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could have on the Indo-Pacific region.
Kim traveled to eastern Russia this week to meet with Putin. During talks Wednesday, the North Korean leader seemed to endorse Moscow’s ongoing war in Ukraine. He said he’s certain Russia will “emerge victorious in the fight to punish the evil forces that ambitiously pursues hegemony and expansion,” according to Russia’s state-run TASS news agency. The Russian news agency also reported Kim wants to deepen bilateral ties with Moscow and Putin reminded Kim that the Soviet Union came to Pyongyang’s aid during its war against U.S.-aligned South Korea in the 1950s.
“They get to choose meetings between senior officials at their discretion,” Flynn said. “So, if they choose to meet, then they get to do that.”