Randall Shriver, United States Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, recently spoke to Yoshinari Kurose, Washington Bureau chief of The Sankei Shimbun and JAPAN Forward.
The wide-ranging and substantive interview held on November 21 started off with the most contentious issue: China. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is a key to China’s expansionism and its hegemonic strategy not just in the Indo-Pacific region but the whole world.
What is [your] main concern regarding the PLA’s advancement in strategy and also in weapons?
Well, they have been investing heavily in their military for quite a long period of time, over a decade of double-digit growth in official defense budgets. We think the spending exceeds what is published in official budgets. So, with that kind of investment over that period of time, they are obviously improving in a lot of areas. It is really a full-spectrum improvement: strategic systems, traditional platforms, conventional platforms, but also new areas, cyber, space. So, they are improving across the board.
That appears to be tied to a strategy that is more assertive, particularly in the Asia Pacific, Indo-Pacific region. But as you point out, they are more active globally, so I would say it is the combination of their qualitative improvement over time of their military [and] their more assertive foreign policy.
How about their nuclear arsenals? What is your assessment of them?
Well, they are not very transparent, so even what we would consider pretty fundamental information, like the number of warheads, they don’t publish. So, we make assessments based on what information is available. But, in delivery systems, they are improving, so their strategic forces are also part of that modernization effort.
And how about the assessment of the mid-range and short-range missiles posing a threat to U.S. bases in Guam or mainland Japan?
It has been an area of heavy investment, ballistic and cruise missiles, and it is an area where they have had, I think, technical success and progress. So, they are at a point where they can hold at risk our forward deployed forces, bases that we are allowed to use in Japan, and other forward operating locations. Some people refer to it as a strategy of A2AD — anti-access/area denial — and so that factors in how we think about future possible contingencies.
President Trump actually declared the U.S. pullout from the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty. Would that give any positive impact to the nuclear strategy in East Asia, in terms of countering the threat of those Chinese missiles?
I think our State Department is still looking at precisely if — and how — a withdrawal would be made, and then at a later point I think we would have to look at implications.
How about the Chinese submarines, SLBMs?
Again, very similar. They have invested a lot in a strategic capability through submarine launched ICBMs, and we assess they have made progress there.
Especially in the South China Sea, you can see China is trying to make the particular area a bastion of submarines. I think it is a part of A2AD strategy. What is the U.S. strategy — beyond Freedom of Navigation operations — to prevent the South China Sea from becoming a Chinese naval stronghold?
Well, it is a “whole of government” approach. Some of it is declaratory policy making: declare our interest in a free and open Indo-Pacific and our firm belief that the South China Sea is international water, and that any sovereignty disputes should be handled peacefully.
Part of it is through freedom of navigation and presence operations (FONOPs).
Part of it is through operating with like-minded countries in presence operations. Perhaps not actual FONOPs because some countries don’t want to navigate within the 12 nautical mile areas, but presence operations alongside other countries. Cost imposition in some cases.
When we disinvited China from RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific Exercise), Secretary [James] Mattis specifically cited the behavior in the South China Sea as a reason. So, our goal is to ensure that everyone understands China can’t unilaterally change international law, international norms, and that their illegal expansive claims won’t be honored. And we demonstrate that through our behavior.
This is about China’s diplomatic field. They are establishing military outposts in places like Djibouti by acquiring ports through so-called “debt diplomacy.” Does this constitute a growing challenge to U.S. military strategy in the world?
Well, it is something that we are observing in real time. And I would say it is a fluid environment because, in some cases, the approach has backfired a bit and created a backlash in certain countries. I think we are seeing that in places like Malaysia, somewhat in Sri Lanka, although the politics there have gotten a little more complicated. But people don’t like the perception that their sovereignty is being eroded.
So, what can this Department do in countering this?
Well, again, I will speak more “whole of government.” I think shining a light on this approach by China and showing through the examples that countries are dealing with — that there is a downside to getting into these kinds of deals with China — so that other countries can learn from the experience of others. In some cases, offering alternatives.
We don’t invest and pursue development assistance the same way China does. We don’t use corruption, we won’t make sweetheart deals with authoritarian leaders. But we do promote investment that is clean, transparent, beneficial to the host nation. So, our own alternatives, or in cooperation with Japan, with India, are providing a better alternative than what the Chinese can offer.
I would like to change the topic to the East China Sea. It seems like the activities of the Chinese military, and so-called militia, are increasing. What is your assessment of the East China Sea at this moment?
Well, first of all, we don’t draw much of a distinction at this point between the Chinese Navy, Maritime Militia, and the Chinese Coast Guard. If they are all involved in a similar activity, which is to challenge the sovereignty claims that are disputed with Japan, put pressure on our ally. So, I think we have seen a steady amount of activity and pressure on Japan. And we have seen Japan respond to that in, I think, an appropriate way.
Of course, several administrations in a row, including this one, have acknowledged that our treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands because it is a territory administered by the government of Japan, so we will continue to be a supportive ally in those matters. Although we haven’t taken a position on sovereignty itself, we do acknowledge the treaty applies.
You mentioned the Coast Guard and the Maritime Militia. As you know, now the Chinese Coast Guard is under the Central Military Commission of China and it is highly probable that those so-called fishermen are Chinese military. But, actually, is it a kind of gray zone? Would the U.S. draw a clear line that defines that those elements are actually part of the Chinese military, and change the approach?
We are more interested in what the activity is and what the mission is of a particular hull, not the color it is painted.
About the U.S.-Japan relationship, what do you expect the Japanese Self Defense Force (SDF) or the Japanese government to do to counter these assertive Chinese actions?
We have been supportive of Japan’s response so far. I think Japan has had a steady tempo of challenges and intercepts when the activity is viewed as a threat to Japanese sovereignty and Japanese interests. I think, over a longer period of time, Japan is increasing resources for defense, but also realigning and paying more attention to the south and to those disputed areas, and we are supportive of that.
We are looking at Japan’s upcoming five-year defense program guidelines and we are in consultation with Japan, as we were when we were developing our National Defense Strategy. So, I think the challenges from China in the East China Sea are near the top of the list for our Japanese allies and so we will be supportive as they further develop the strategy.
Does that also apply to the South China Sea? Will Japan be playing a more proactive role in the South China Sea?
That is a sovereign decision for Japan and I think where we know we are aligned is in the interests. We both want a free and open Indo-Pacific and a South China Sea that is under nobody’s sole control, that remains international waters, and so we will work out the particular activities that support that.
Turning our eyes to Taiwan: according to the Pentagon’s annual report, Chinese combat aircraft are actually increasing. Not only the numbers of aircraft, but the Cross-Strait balance of power is going in favor of China. So, what would be the U.S. action in order to balance the power, to make it more in favor of Taiwan?
Well, our law requires us to monitor the balance of military forces and the law also says, based solely on our assessment of the military balance, we will make decisions on weapons of a defensive nature for Taiwan’s self-defense. So that is part of an ongoing practice we do.
I think, beyond that, Taiwan is part of a sort of frontline activity for the whole Indo-Pacific first island chain that China may be presenting challenges to. So, we think of our own posture, our own readiness related not just to a Taiwan contingency but broader challenges, so we are looking at that now through the interpretation and implementation of our National Defense Strategy.
Talking about particular weapons, how about selling F-35s to Taiwan? That has been in the news and rumored for quite a while.
I am not in a position to talk about future sales, but we will act in accordance with our law which says, based on the military balance, based on the threat, we’ll make things available to Taiwan that are needed.
Has cooperation in building the Taiwanese indigenous submarine already been going on or started?
My understanding is that Taiwan has stood up a program and has appropriated funds. I think they are still in a research and development stage.
There is no plan for the United States to sell submarines itself to Taiwan?
Well, in April 2001, we committed to assist Taiwan in the acquisition of diesel electric submarines. We don’t make diesel electric submarines, so how we fulfill that commitment of assisting Taiwan in the acquisition of diesel electric submarines is still to be determined, but that is a commitment that was made.
I think you may have already mentioned on some occasions that the way of providing weapons to Taiwan – well, in the past it was like a package every year. But the United States decided to change the way of providing weapons to Taiwan in some way. Could you elaborate a little more on that?
Well, what we have said publicly is that we will treat Taiwan as a normal Foreign Military Sales (FMS) partner. So that means when they see a requirement, they can put in a letter of request and within a certain amount of time, they will get a response. That is how we treat Foreign Military Sales partners around the world, which is different than waiting and bundling and having years go by before things are announced. It is maybe a change back to the way things were done in the past.
Any response from the Chinese government on this?
They tend to protest anything we do with Taiwan.
About North Korea, of course now this is a State Department effort. But on the other hand, we notice North Korea’s non-movement in taking steps on dismantling their nuclear arsenals, or all in all denuclearization. So, what is the Defense Department’s (DoD) assessment on the status of North Korean denuclearization?
We’re focused on supporting the State Department and the diplomacy. We have particular roles attached to that and very much in partnership with Japan, sanctions enforcement and particularly focusing on disruption of ship-to-ship transfers of illegal and illicit materials and goods. We’ll leave it to the diplomats to try to negotiate the denuclearization, so we will focus just on the DoD role here.
Has DoD detected any concrete moves or concrete steps that indicate North Korea is actually heading toward denuclearization? Like dismantling particular sites or something like that?
I will just refer you to what the State Department has said on that.
On South Korea, in order to facilitate the diplomatic process, the U.S. and South Korea actually suspended some major joint exercises. How about next spring’s major exercises, like Ulchi Freedom Guardian and others?
The only decisions that have been made are the ones that have been announced. And the future decisions, as Secretary Mattis has said, will be determined based on North Korea negotiating in good faith. So, so we will see how the State Department reads that, and then we will make future decisions.
There are concerns in Japan and South Korea that sometime in the future we will not know how the negotiation will unfold – we can just hope for the best solution. But, in that process there are concerns that the United States may pull out or actually decrease its number of troops on the Korean Peninsula. That kind of a change in numbers of troops is always a concern in the region.
I haven’t seen anybody in a position to speak authoritatively who has said we have a plan to reduce troops. And, I think that has been true of our ally in Seoul as well, all the way up to and including President Moon, who has said that our alliance has purpose beyond just the immediate North Korea threat and that he is not in a position now to say that we want a troop decrease. So, thus far the decisions we have made on the exercises have been in order to give the diplomats space. We may make future decisions, we will see how the negotiations go, but there is no discussion about troop levels and the numbers of troops.
Could you explain to ordinary readers why the United States’ staying in South Korea is very important? The significance of the U.S. troops in the R.O.K.?
The immediate priority is to help South Korea protect its country, protect its people, its sovereignty from a North Korea threat. Although we are in the process of talking about denuclearization, nothing has been done to reduce the conventional capabilities. There are some confidence building measures, but the North Koreans have not done anything to degrade any of their conventional capability. So, that is still a significant threat.
I think, beyond that, we have shared regional and global interests. The U.S. and the R.O.K. have fought alongside one another in every major war of the 20th century and into the 21st century. The R.O.K. was the third largest contributor to our forces in Iraq after the invasion in 2003. So, it is an alliance that has, in a way, become expeditionary, not just focused on the Korean Peninsula. So, for us to be there, to train and exercise with South Korean allies gives us the capability to be expeditionary.
And also, if you could talk about Okinawa. This is not a thing that you might comment on, but the Governor of Okinawa was elected, and he has his view on the bases on Okinawa. Could you address how important the bases are for the security of the region, not just the security of Japan and the United States?
Japan is our most important ally in the Asia Pacific region, not only because of the capabilities that Japan has, but because of the grand bargain that we reached in our treaty long ago, which was we could use our forward-deployed forces in Japan to affect security throughout Asia. That is a unique arrangement.
And we do have security challenges throughout Asia. We’ve mentioned the East China Sea, Taiwan, South China Sea, threats to sovereignty of maritime Asia. And so, having that ability to be forward deployed and to train and exercise in those environments, gives us an ability to affect security throughout the region in a way that our other allies and forward presence doesn’t afford us. So, it is absolutely critical.
Just one more thing, going back to the East China Sea, you say you don’t make a decision based on the paint on those [Chinese] vessels – you see them for their actions?
Right, we are most concerned with what their activity is, what their mission is, and their purpose, not what color the hull is painted.
How do you react when they are disguised as fishermen and the Coast Guard law enforcement is protecting ‘fishermen’ that are a disguised militia. But, in fact, what they are doing is totally different. Actually, the boats are taking advantage of their appearance as fishermen, so the United States or Japan cannot engage them the way they could a military. That is always posing a problem to the Japanese Self Defense Force. So, would there be any way to adequately deal with those forces?
Well, as I said, we don’t make a distinction based on the color of the hull. It is the activity. And this has, by the way, been communicated to the Chinese directly as well – that we are not interested in talking about three different forces if they are all involved in the same activity. So, our response in support of the principles of a free and open Indo-Pacific, our response in terms of supporting our ally in Japan, will be appropriate for the activity, not what color the hull is painted.
(Click here to read the interview in Japanese.)
Interviewer: Yoshinari Kurose, Washington Bureau Chief