DALLAS--The strategic balance in the South China Sea now has both regional and global ramifications and it could be regarded as a new “strategic pivot” for the Asia-Pacific region, retired U.S. Navy Adm. Patrick Walsh said.
In a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun, the former U.S. Pacific Fleet commander explained that he based his idea on the “heartland” theory of Halford Mackinder (1861-1947), a British political geographer who argued in his 1904 paper that the interior of Asia and East Europe, which constituted the "heartland," had become the strategic center. Mackinder later warned that whoever rules the heartland ultimately commands the world.
Walsh pointed out that China’s recent claim to the entire South China Sea is "unacceptable." He also expressed concerns about China’s development of “anti-access, area denial” capabilities, which could restrict the freedom of action of U.S. forces and other regional militaries, as well as create challenges for global shipping.
The lack of transparency in China's strategic intentions is the major driving factor for regional uncertainty, Walsh said. At the same time, he emphasized that the dependability of the United States in the region was underscored by the disaster relief efforts by U.S. forces following the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami last year, and that U.S. forces would remain forward deployed throughout the region.
Excerpts of the interview follow:
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Question: Why did you decide to apply Mackinder's “heartland” theory to the maritime domain in Southeast Asia?
Answer: What he meant was that if this pivot area was stable and secure, then it would have an effect and an impact that went far beyond the local area. For us today, it’s the South China Sea. And there are a number of factors that come into play.
It begins with trillions of dollars of economic activity that flows through a region that has historic disputes on where boundaries and lines of delimitation are formed. And now what you see is a real demand for resources in the South China Sea area, so that if there’s anything that disrupts the freedom of navigation, it has far greater impact that goes well beyond just the local area.
Q: What do you think is the current status of the South China Sea?
A: With economic development and activity comes an interest in keeping abreast with military technology. And what we’re concerned about is that countries starting to develop real military capability that can tip the balance in the region. They are very interested in procuring more submarines and ships.
My counterparts, my military commander counterparts, are really “on the horns of a dilemma,” because if they don’t advocate for keeping abreast with military developments, then they run the risk of losing economic water space in the EEZ (exclusive economic zone), or the risk of a direct confrontation with China.
Q: What is the role of the United States?
A: There was never any intention, either overt or indirect, to take control. But, the idea of having military power that was credible and sustainable, yes. That was always done in conjunction with partnerships. I think the role that the United States played and can best play is one that supports and reinforces the norms of acceptable behavior in international water.
Q: China uses a U-shaped, nine-dash (nine-dotted) line along the coastal line and the island chains in the South China Sea as the basis for its sovereignty claim. The encircled area covers almost the entire South China Sea. How should we deal with China’s claim?
A: It created all kinds of confusion because the language China used was “core interest,” the same language used for Tibet and Taiwan. The international community is confused. And I think the role that we can play is to recognize ahead of time that this is an area that can lead to greater misunderstanding and greater tension.
Q: Do you want China to back off from its current claim?
A: How about clarify? I mean, it’s a dash line, not a full line. So, there is a message there as well.
Q: The famous quote of Mackinder goes, “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world.” And apparently China is trying to control the South China Sea. Are you saying that the United States has to prevent China from controlling it?
A: If you recognize that there is this critical node, this locus of activity, you can’t let one country just sort of dominate all of that economic activity and expect the world to continue to function as it is.
And unless we, the international community, are there to push back, then they can change the norms of behavior. And I think one of the challenges with China today is that there are some in leadership positions today who do not feel like they had an opportunity to participate in the formulation of the international norms and behaviors that are in place today.
And, as a result, they have put out the “nine-dash-line” presentation and said, “This body of water, this 1,600 nautical miles of water that extends from the southern coast of China all the way to the Straits of Malacca, conforms to internal Chinese law.” And that, to me, is absolutely unacceptable from any perspective, in the international community.
Q: The recently released new U.S. defense strategic guidance, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” names China and Iran as states that will “continue to pursue asymmetric means to counter our power projection capabilities.” And the following Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) focuses on “the emerging anti-access, area denial security challenges.” Can you explain the current status of such challenges in the Asia-Pacific region?
A: I think it’s important to start by saying that anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) is only that if we let it. If we sit back and rationalize that this is not a threat or that we don’t need to worry about it, we will have a problem. It will be a threat, and we run the risk of losing a very important element of deterrence strategy unless we’re willing to address this directly.
When the electromagnetic spectrum was dominated or compromised, when there was technical capability that could, in theory, hit moving, maneuvering ships, to sit idly by and just sort of wait to see what happens is not an option if we’re going to maintain a leadership role. I do know that we live in a proliferated world and, regardless of who makes it, it’s going to end up in places such as Iran, Syria or North Korea, and we’re going to have to deal with it.
I think we have an investment strategy and we have a research and development strategy that keeps pace with the developments that are taking place.
Q: How credible is the power projection capability of the United States under this current A2/AD environment? Can Japan and other regional states still depend on it?
A: Well, I think the dependability of the United States has been proven over the course of events in the last year, Operation Tomodachi, in terms of the willingness to come forward, to be responsive, to work quickly on behalf of Japan.
When you look at how the United States reacts and responds to any sort of incident in the South China Sea--the secretary of state has been very clear, the secretary of defense has been very clear, the president has been very clear--that issues of freedom of navigation are everyone’s issues, and this is a core interest as far as we’re concerned.
The question of China’s rise comes up with every country I interact with because they are fearful, because China is not transparent in terms of their intentions. And even though they may present themselves with defensive capability, in the public communications, when we look at what that capability is really capable of doing, it’s projecting power.
Q: The question is whether the United States has the capability to protect freedom of navigation or action if the adversary tries to sabotage it. It’s been 16 years since the Taiwan Strait crisis in 1996. And some experts say that the U.S. Navy would not be able to dispatch carrier battle groups in the vicinity of Taiwan anymore because of the emerging A2/AD capability of China.
A: Well, fair enough. If the fighting has already started, it would not make sense to bring a carrier through there. But, in the meantime, we have carriers going into Hong Kong all the time; we have ships that make the transit all the time.
If the point is that you need to be alert, and what you are going to do with the double-digit SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) that are there, what you are going to do with a Chinese military capability that is both flying as well as on the coast, I think there are steps that we take in terms of the guidance that we give to our ships, as well as to our commanders at sea, and the training and preparation for it, that we’re not going to go into this blind and we’re not going to go into a situation like that, where we ignore the capability that they have. It’s real.
In the meantime, if you look at the ability for the Pacific Fleet alone to muster up 60 or 70 percent of the 180 ships that are assigned to it, with the six carrier strike groups, I think that’s a very impressive force that’s available to be used. And I think there are ways that we can use this force without compromising the safety of the crew.
Q: I understand the Air-Sea Battle is one of the key operational concepts to counter such A2/AD challenges. How effective will this be in protecting the credibility of U.S. power projection capabilities?
A: When I look at the Air-Sea Battle, I see the benefit to bring the best of resources to bear, from both the Air Force and the Navy. And it’s focused on the very problem that we were describing.
For us to just simply allow “business as usual” in the procurement process and not focus on A2/AD, I think, would be a significant lapse in leadership and judgment.
Q: One of Japan’s concerns when we see this new U.S. defense strategy is the possible decline of deterrence capability because of the geographical dispersal of U.S. forces in the region, including the new rotational deployment of the U.S. Marine Corps to Australia.
A: I think the answer to the question is, actually, looking at it from the other point of view.
So, when you think about the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and how they might look at the movement of U.S. Marines, I’m not sure that they ever contemplated any sort of action that would involve direct conflict with U.S. Marines. But, there are scenarios where it’s really helpful to have U.S. BMD (ballistic missile defense)-capable ships in Northeast Asia, and there are scenarios where it’s very helpful to have, from our point of view, U.S. carrier strike group presence.
And that, to me, is a deterrent, and a more likely scenario to deter from.
Q: Looking back at the Senkaku Islands incident in September 2010, what should we read into it?
A: China reacted to international pressure, while their initial response was one that escalated tension. The international community was appalled at the behavior that quickly went from a local incident to a discussion on (export restrictions of) rare earth metals. I think the exposure of these sorts of problems to the international community is very helpful in terms of trying to help China understand what’s acceptable and what’s not.
Q: The naval activities of the PLA Navy in the Western Pacific have shown a substantial escalation between 2009 and 2012, while you were commander of the Pacific Fleet. One obvious example for the Japanese is the amount and frequency of traffic through the waterway between Okinawa and Miyako Islands. What do you think is the proper response?
A: On occasion, Chinese vessels had stated by means of bridge-to-bridge communication that U.S. Navy vessels were operating too close to China and were warned not to be there. When we checked our location, we were in international waters and were, in fact, closer to Japan than China. So there is this hubris that has developed and that plays out in local areas. I think we should be very clear and address it directly.
If the Chinese wish to present themselves in ways that challenge some of the historic understanding of how waters are divided, then I think there is an appropriate Maritime Self-Defense Force response, whether it’s surveillance, whether it’s using those transits as a means of training or gathering intelligence. While the Chinese think they’re delivering one message, there are ways that you can tip this issue and flip it so that it works to the advantage of Japan.
Q: How does the emergence of space and cyberspace as contested domains change the security landscape in Asia-Pacific?
A: The idea that you can have a domain that is ubiquitous allows a potential adversary to win without firing a shot. We’re very concerned about countries in the region, which are vulnerable to cyber-attack. It seems to me that there is plenty of reason why we should develop a cyber coalition that addresses the common interests and concerns that countries have.
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