In the intense pressure of crisis, when combat forces are poised to strike, national pride is at stake, and seconds count, who really controls the growing military power of China or North Korea?
With armed confrontations and rising tensions in North Asia, the question is taking on new urgency, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates' public warning that within five years North Korea will be able to strike the United States with long-range missiles.
North Korea has cut off its end of the crisis hotline with South Korea and has engaged in a series of armed attacks against the South, which is now pledging to push back. No one really knows exactly who has his finger on the launch button in North Korea.
And in China, there is new evidence that the civilian leaders may not know what their own military is up to, even as the Peoples Liberation Army pushes to acquire high-tech weapons and engages in aggressive territorial disputes.
So, when the inevitable crisis threatens to spiral out of control in the western Pacific and President Obama picks up the phone, whom does he call?
That question will underlie the meetings scheduled for this week between Obama and China's president, Hu Jintao, who arrives Wednesday for a three-day visit to Washington and Chicago. North Korea's behavior is expected to be high on the agenda.
Hu is not only president and Communist Party leader, but chairman of the Central Military Commission and ostensibly commander in chief of the Peoples Liberation Army, including its naval and air force branches. But does he really control the aging generals who have run the PLA for decades?
"There are questions about the relationship between China's military and its civilian leadership that were really not there before,'' said Victor Cha, director for Asian studies at Georgetown University and White House Asia adviser from 2004 to 2007. "It's a risk in crisis management -- if you have a more autonomous military, that raises all sorts of problems.''
So far, armed clashes -- North Korea's sinking of a South Korean naval ship last March and its unprovoked shelling of a South Korean island in November -- have not set off wider conflicts. But South Korea is signaling an end to its patience, saying it will respond with force next time.
"The situation is more dangerous than it has been in the past -- we are not on the cusp of a new Korean war, but there is a higher potential for crisis,'' said Bruce Klingner, a former senior CIA officer, who is a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "We are seeing an escalation in the extent to which they are willing to go to push tensions to a much higher level,'' he said of North Korea in an interview.
Unfortunately, he added, the North Koreans are literally "not answering'' the hotline phone on their side of the border.
The Korean Demilitarized Zone is not the only place where tensions are evident. In response to China's aggressive new campaign to extend and defend with force its claims over disputed territorial waters
and islands, Gates reiterated that the United States will defend its right to "freedom of passage'' for its warships in the region.
The potential for naval confrontations in the western Pacific seem to call for swift and accurate communication between U.S. and China's senior leaders. But there are new questions about who is in command.
In Beijing last week, Gates was startled, along with his host, President Hu, when China's military staged a dramatic first test flight of its new stealth fighter, which apparently took place without the knowledge of China's civilian leadership.
The J-20 stealth fighter debut comes as China is also developing and fielding sophisticated ballistic and cruise missiles that could hold at risk any U.S warships in the region.
That is concerning enough, but what got the attention of Gates and other U.S. officials was that the Chinese civilians also seemed caught off-guard, underscoring what has been a deepening U.S. worry as China's military grows in power and expands its operations.
"I've had concerns about this over time,'' Gates said. "And, frankly, it's one of the reasons why I attach importance to a dialogue between the two sides that includes both civilians and militaries.'' That may come in the future, he said. "We have no forum right now on security issues, or military issues, that includes senior civilians and military.''
The concern is not so much that China's military has "gone rogue'' but that it's on a "long leash'' from civilian control, said Andrew Scobell, a China expert at the Rand Corp. and the author of several books on China's military.
"Ideally, you want the civilian leadership of China to be in very firm control of the military and to have a coordinated response to anything in normal times but especially in a crisis,'' Sobell said. China doesn't want a war, he added. "But the fear is that we stumble into a conflict by mistake, and there are plenty of signs of the potential for a crisis to emerge and spiral out of control.''
Right now that potential stems from China's determination to enforce its ownership of water and islands that lie as far out as 200 miles from its coastline. But under the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention
, signed by 160 countries including China and the United States, countries may claim jurisdiction only out to 24 miles, with exclusive economic rights (for fishing, for example) out to 200 miles. The law allows others to navigate within the 200-mile economic exclusion zone, and it also allows warships the right of innocent passage through vital straits inside the 24-mile limit.
In Asia this week, Gates several times reiterated that the United States intends to use military muscle to enforce access, or "freedom of the seas,'' to within 24 miles of China's coastline.
During the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union managed potential maritime clashes with a series of agreed procedures, governing how close warships could come to each other, and how to communicate bridge to bridge, for example.
No such agreement exists between the U.S. and Chinese navies, and analysts say it's easy to imagine a full-blown crisis igniting from the collision of two warships.
"I don't think the Chinese recognize the seriousness of the situation,'' Scobell said. "They confide that they can manage these crises -- but they also have a chip on their shoulder. They think they're completely in the right. Hence the danger of crisis.''
Risks are also rising
on the Korean peninsula, where President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea is under growing domestic pressure to respond sharply to any new North Korean aggression. Seoul has withheld retaliation for the two most recent attacks by North Korea, in which two South Korean civilians and 48 sailors and marines were killed.
that more than two-thirds of South Koreans now support military retaliation against North Korea. In preparation, South Korea has loosened the military rules of engagement, for example, by eliminating a former restriction on commanders to fire only one artillery shell of the same caliber as an incoming North Korean artillery round. Those rules were designed to limit escalation in a crisis. Now, South Korean military commanders have more power to respond forcefully.
Last month, Gen. Han Min-Koo of South Korea said that in response to any new "provocation'' by North Korea his forces would respond with "an instantaneous as well as a very firm response.''