Interview: Lawrence Wilkerson

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Interview: Lawrence Wilkerson

A discussion of tensions in East Asia, and some possible solutions

Interview: Lawrence Wilkerson
Credit: U.S. Department of Defense

Lawrence Wilkerson is an expert in international security and a prominent commentator on American foreign policy. He is a retired United States Army colonel who served as chief of staff to the United States Secretary of State Colin Powell. He gained international attention for his open opposition to the decision of the United States to invade Iraq. He recently spoke with Emanuel Pastreich, director of the Asia Institute, about the United States and the future of East Asia.

What do you see as the underlying sources for the tensions between China and the United States today? 

The tensions between the United States and other ASEAN nations with China over the South China Sea today are extremely serious. The South China Sea and the tensions with Russia over Ukraine are the two greatest sources of possible conflict today and I believe that either problem could lead to war if not properly handled.

The problem is in part one resulting from an American drive to confront China, but it is exacerbated, almost daily, because the Chinese leadership has discovered that nationalism serves as a great replacement for the void in ideology that the death of communism has produced. I fear that as growth slows below 7 percent, the Chinese government will increasingly feel a need to throw nationalist red meat to the Chinese people. I fear that the speculation about a possible military conflict could become a self-fulfilling prophecy and I suggest that America and China, and other nations, take concrete steps to reduce the tension and create a broad dialogue. The United States or China could end up in a situation in which both parties, to avoid a loss of face, are forced to do what they said they would do. In the South China Sea – and in particular around the Spratly Islands – we see the greatest risk of a major confrontation.

All sides should recognize that we have a dangerous situation. Such confrontation is not in the interest of the United States, China or the region.

I am not interested in defending China regarding the South China Sea, but there are those who have argued that although some see Chinese activities in the South China Sea as excessive, or arrogant, China’s actions are certainly not worse than American interference in South America in the 1960s and 1970s and that there is no justification for the United States to get involved in what is essentially a regional problem. What are your thoughts?

The argument regarding the United States’ meddling is a fair one to make. I would rather want to focus on the need to start a broader and more level-headed discussion about territory in the South China Sea that moves beyond an emotional and nationalist fight between the claimants such as Vietnam and the Philippines, and China. Let us also bring in countries like Indonesia who have a stake in the region. I think the best way to address what I personally think is a mistake on the Chinese part is to have other voices say, “Listen China, these claims are causing an unnecessary problem. You are making claims that are far beyond what any international law would codify and approve.”

There are laws and processes that can be invoked to deal with these claims without escalating military tensions. The United States should pull back and not try to make itself the center of attention.

The United States could say, but currently is not saying, “Let’s resolve this dispute in a way that benefits everyone and sets a positive precedent for the future.”

We need to emphasize above all the establishment of a global commons and preserve our fragile ocean from greater damage. Whatever might come out of these islands of value should be for the common good, and not the national good. Our concern should not be building up a military presence in the South China Sea, but rather getting a grip on the dangerous mass redistribution of wealth going on globally. The United States, the nations of ASEAN and China need to put their resources into addressing social inequality and responding toclimate change.

Perhaps we can take these discussions on such global issues and develop them into global institutions that will eventually replace the sadly out of date United Nations.

I certainly support moving from a simple confrontation between nation states over territories to a global debate on true global governance, to address inequality and the danger of climate change. But what exactly do you think the next step in global governance beyond the United Nations would be?

An important issue in the future will be addressing the tremendous global social and financial inequity. Perhaps an important role of the international institution that replaces the United Nations will be monitoring and perhaps even collecting, that global tax on capital that will assure that wealth is more balanced in its distribution in the future. China, the United States, and other nations in Asia should start focusing their attention on creating a global commons and reducing inequity – a much more critical issue than a military buildup over islands. Perhaps the territorial issues can be handled by this next-generation institution for global governance at the same time it sets out to create a global commons and move beyond the limits of the nation state.

I wonder whether one of the most effective approaches, given the serious damage being done to the ocean’s ecosystem, and the risk from warming oceans, is simply to take all the islands that are controversial, Dokudo, Senkaku-Diaoyutai, Spratly Islands, and make them nature preserves. They may be administered by one nation, but their natural resources cannot be exploited.

Such an approach could also help. I think we have to remember the question of Germany after World War One – in any case you never want to leave a state humiliated over territory. But the general concept of a nature preserve has much promise. For example, I would offer a similar concept for the future of Guantánamo Bay in Cuba – territory belonging to Cuba that is occupied by the United States.

The hope is that by separating out territorial possession from potential profit from marine products and minerals, we can help to cool the disputes over islands going on today. We tell the countries involved in an island dispute that “”You can say it’s yours, but you cannot exploit it in any way, and it has no monetary value.”

Yes, we can handle many territorial disputes by taking the monetary value out of them and at the same time internationalizing them. Let us take again the case of Guantánamo Bay. This territory has been occupied by the United States, but it belongs to Cuba. Really there is no dispute about whose territory it should be. Many of the Cubans with whom I have spoken about this issue reply in a similar fashion. Obviously we should have returned it to Cuba many years ago. But one way to handle the potentially politically sensitive aspects of the return (in the United States, not in Cuba) some effort should be made to internationalize the function of Guantánamo Bay. For example, the land could be developed as the home for a medical contingency brigade for the Western hemisphere to respond to natural disasters. The Cubans are very receptive to this innovative proposal. The American side, however, although its position is much weaker, remains less receptive.

Turning to Korea, President Park Geun-hye is planning to visit the United States, but the visit has been delayed and there has been much trouble coming up with a viable agenda. Many Koreans worry that the country is being squeezed. The United States is pressuring Korea to adopt a more distant stance with regards to China, but in fact Korea finds itself increasingly working together closely with China.

And recently there was a statement by U.S. Department of State Assistant Secretary Daniel Russell suggesting Korea should even take a stance on the South China Sea. Koreans think their position is tragic. Is the situation that serious and what should Korea’s strategy be for economic and political survival?

These concerns are not just Korea’s concerns. And the problem is not simply one of American demands. There are simply serious institutional vacuums in East Asia.

I had a conversation yesterday with three Japanese journalists. We started out discussing Okinawa, but our conversation ranged over many issues, including Korea.

These Japanese were quite sympathetic with the short-lived period when the Liberal Democratic Party was not making policy. Therefore their perspective on security issues was quite distinct from what one hears in the media.

They expressed concern about Abe’s efforts to make Japan a “normal country,” i.e. a country with a significant military presence around the world and more corporate and government interest in providing collective security for its region.

As I listened to their concerns about Japan-Korea relations, I realized that not only is there no multilateral security alliance (like NATO) in Northeast Asia, but there is not even the required mutual trust that would be required to set up such a security alliance or architecture. Northeast Asia may be the most vital part of the global economy, but even the basics are missing when it comes to stable military and security relations.

That lacuna is the root of my concern for the Korea-Japan-China relationship, and relationships throughout the entire region. There simply is not the trust and mutual understanding to match the extensive economic interplay.

Of course there is much consultation with regard to trade in Northeast Asia. But when it comes to basic trust of the other person in exchanges, it just isn’t there. As long as that trust is missing, there will be ammunition for those who want to promote a U.S.-Korea-Japan alliance. Because there is not a high level of trust, there is not an ongoing dialog between Korea and Japan on critical issues and therefore relations between Korea and Japan are sometimes determined by exterior factors.

The rise of China is the most obvious factor today. If Koreans and Japanese engage in a close coordination with the United States, India etc. and appear to be aggressively trying to contain and encircle China, they will only be successful in exacerbating problems with China, not solving them. Chinese nationalism will only grow stronger if there is a perception of a hostile intent on the part of China’s neighbors, particularly if that hostility is seen by Beijing as being stirred up by the United States.

And then there is the question of whether Abe might go all the way and make Japan a nuclear power. The nonproliferation treaty and its noble goals may be abandoned completely in the future, resulting in tremendous risk to the entire world, starting with a drive to take South Korea nuclear.

Do you think that if Japan and Korea go nuclear, that will lead to greater proliferation throughout the region, including Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia? 

In terms of politics, it is certainly possible, but the costs are great. I monitored nuclear weapons programs for a few decades and I think that the ultimate issue is not what your rivals think of you, but rather the political and social costs of diverting efforts to nuclear weapons and the simple technological costs of running a program. That is the reason that John F. Kennedy’s grim prediction of twenty-six nuclear powers by 1984 never came true.

So if we look at the limits so far on nuclear proliferation, it is not simply a matter of someone preventing these countries from getting nuclear weapons. It is also just damn difficult and expensive to develop them. As a leader you would need to persuade your people that they have to spend that much money and time on this effort and not something else.

Well, it seems that in America we do not have much problem with enormously expensive programs these days. It is hard to make sense of all the money the United States is spending on budget-busting defense systems.

Well, here in the United States we just print our money, so we don’t have any problem with big spending on defense. When we can no longer print our money without the result of 1,000 percent inflation the next day, our thinking will change too.

Returning to Japan, the rhetoric of the Japanese is clearly directed at China and the China threat has been hyped. But the lack of a general security architecture is not just about China.

Although the Japanese will not say it explicitly, one can detect in what they state, and don’t state, a fear of a future unified Korean peninsula with 75 million Koreans and close ties to China and many other nations. That unified Korea may not give up its nuclear weapons, after all. So although that image is not quite as daunting as the Chinese colossus, it is plenty worrisome for Tokyo.

When I heard Russell’s statement, it seemed so unreasonable that I wondered whether hardliners in the United States were not pressuring Korea to align more closely with Washington, but rather trying to purposely alienate the Koreans so that they would be driven towards China. It is possible that things have gotten that bad in Washington?

I don’t see pushing Korea towards China as a strategic objective of this administration.

But you wouldn’t deny there might be some people out there who have that rather cynical idea.

There are definitely some people out there who would love to see South Korea embroiled in some political conflict with China and Japan. They think that such a policy will strengthen the U.S. hand.

I understand the problems with speculation. Let us rather talk a bit about more concrete issues. For example, there is the recent dispute about missile defense. The United States has been pushing directly and indirectly for deployment of the (THAAD) missile defense system in South Korea. Why THAAD in Korea, and why now? 

I have always viewed missile defense as a form of camouflage for big contracts for military contractors. I remember there were discussions in the late 1980s in the Pentagon about missile defense. Then missile defense faded away, but it was back again in the 1990s.

There was a serious debate about missile defense when Bill Perry was secretary of defense, an engineer and a rare man to serve in that position. Bill Perry’s team analyzed ballistic missile defense and came to the conclusion that it was simply too expensive and that it would simply take away budget share from other places where the military needed funds.

Then, all of a sudden, along came Donald Rumsfeld, and with the wave of a wand the ABM Treaty disappeared. Suddenly we were committed to a $100 billion BMD program, but every engineer we talked to still told us that the whole idea was infeasible and that it would not work the way it was described.

So here we are now, building this system that at best will shoot down two out of ten targets that are coming at it. And if those missiles are loaded with nuclear devices, two of out of ten will not do very much.

So what exactly does the ballistic missile defense do? Well, it makes sure that LockheedMartin and their friends are well-fed and happy.

Now we are taking that system and we are trying to sell it to South Korea. We’re pitching it to them as if it were extremely effective, and we are citing the over-hyped “Iron Dome” system in Israel as proof that missile defense works. But if anyone actually starts launching sophisticated missiles, nuclear-tipped, it will be a complete disaster. Everyone knows the issues with the system and the manner in which China interprets it – and Putin too, for that matter. But if President Park senses it is sufficiently pressing as a political necessity to satisfy the Americans, she will have to have it.

Whether missile defense works or not, it is a potential threat, or at least an excuse to justify a further military missile buildup.  

No, no, you’ve got a point. I think, for example, President Putin has people around him telling him that missile defense is technologically infeasible. But in a political sense that is not all that important. President Putin has an excuse to ramp up the military build-up he has already started. So he cares little if it is effective or not so long as its threat serves his purpose.