Korea zwischen China und USA

Security in Northeast Asia  

Special Interview with Michael O’Hanlon



Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and he specializes in defense and foreign policy issues. He began his career as a budget analyst in the defense field.

O'Hanlon earned an A.B. in 1982, M.S.E. in 1987, M.A. in 1988, and a Ph.D in 1991 all from Princeton University He also served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kinshasa, Congo in the 1980s. He published numerous books on arms and defense strategy.

On December 7th in Washington D.C., Jonghun Eun from Peace Network interviewed Michael O’Hanlon and talked about East Asia and issues around it. We only had about thirty minutes but thirty minutes with O’Hanlon was full of informative and thoughtful talks.


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Military strength has been a key to the U.S. supremacy. However, it is seems that for the next 10 years, billions of dollars decrease in armaments expenditures is inevitable. At this arms-cut period, how would the U.S. global strategy be different?
It’s not going to be very different. In fact, even after this reduction, we will still be spending more than we averaged during the whole cold war. And we will still be spending more than twice as much as China and more than the next ten countries in the world combined. So, yes it’s a difficult management problem. We have to make a smart decision; it’s not an easy process. But you should not confuse it with somehow American disarmament or withdrawal from the world. It’s going to be a very robust defense budget, still.

But with the fiscal cliffs and other economic factors, there would be some cuts in the budget. Some people say there would be some cuts in Europe budgets. How about Asia?
Well, you know, we are talking here on December 7th, so it’s a little bit hard to project all the different things that could happen in the next 3 or 4 weeks. So when you mention the fiscal cliff, there is a possibility of additional deep cuts in defense, that’s true. That would make things harder and that would probably affect some of our capabilities in Asia. But, I don’t think it’s all that likely to happen. And even if it happens, I think we will probably figure out a way to modify it. So my expectation is that, yes, we can continue to be pretty strong in Asia.

What do you think is the intention and the goal of the Chinese armaments increase?
My guess is that, Chinese themselves still don’t know for sure. My guess is that, you know, if you look at great powers in history, and China has obviously become a great power, if not the other superpower very soon. Great powers tend to want to have influence and they tend to think of military force as one way of having that influence. Certainly, we think that way in our country, certainly Britain and other countries did the same thing in the past. So, I think it’s very natural that China would build up its military even when it’s not sure exactly why. Now, of course, if you talk to different Chinese, they could have different answers. Some of them are very concerned about reunifying the country, meaning Taiwan, others of them would like to increase their influence in the Pacific Ocean or the South China Sea, others are worried about Japan or still think there’s a competition or rivalry there, others believe that the United States is inherently a nemesis and they got to be closer to parody with us to be able to balance and make sure that we don’t intimidate them in some future crisis. So, I think if you talk to different Chinese, you will get different answers. Sometimes, the motives are more defensive, sometimes they are more offensive or assertive. But, my impression is that Chinese are still trying to answer that question, which is normal because a lot of times, countries don’t really have a clear policy that everyone agrees to after which they build a military. Usually these two dynamics interact and the way in which they are developing their power interacts with the way they define their security goals.

And, how should the U.S. cope with it?
Well, I’m writing a whole book on this with Jim Steinberg. There are number of things we have to do. But the short answer is that we need to stay very engaged and very capable in East Asia but we also need to avoid making the rivalry with China any worse than it has to be. We need to look for ways to sort of dampen or constrain the competition. And that could mean on how we implement the concept of the air-sea battle, that could mean on how we develop war plans for different contingencies in East Asia, that could mean how we cooperate in thinking about the Korean Peninsula, that could involve confidence building measures at sea or cooperation in the Gulf of Aden doing more missions together in the future. And so, these are the kinds of the things I would look to. I think we are going to have to just be very comprehensive and very imaginative.

And you think the first term of the Obama Administration did it successfully?
The first term of the Obama Administration did one thing successfully. And I think it needed to be done and that was the so called ‘rebalancing’. ‘Rebalancing’ was partly an attempt to be very firm toward China. And to say, “we think you are getting too pushy, we think that you are sending your ships through Japanese territorial waters, you won’t let us put a carrier in the Yellow Sea without complaining, you are getting awfully pushy about these islands in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, and at some point you are going to have to understand these actions require us to respond.” And they make our allies nervous too. It’s not just us, but our allies are asking for some kind of response. So I think that the United States had to do that to some extent. But I think that it’s gone as far as it should. I think that at this point we have to look for ways, not to pull back but to change the tone, to change to the next step. Next step has to be different. The next step has to be a little more balanced, a little more constrained, and a little more conciliatory, if we can do it and if the Chinese themselves cooperate.

The U.S. has declared ‘pivot to Asia’ probably aiming China. Do you think it is Valid and legitimate strategy?
I prefer the term ‘rebalancing’. I think that it’s a better term. Unfortunately, sometimes the Obama Administration still uses the term ‘pivot’ but to me it sounds a little bit more extreme than what’s really happening. The change, I think, is actually more of a nuance and restoring our focus on Asia not creating it for the first time. We are still very involved in the Middle East, we are still partnered with Europe. So I don’t really think the term ‘pivot’ is accurate. But unfortunately you are correct to use that term because the Obama Administration itself still uses that term. Hilary Clinton used it in this building last week in a public speech. But I still think ‘rebalancing’ is better because it sounds little less confrontational and a little less dramatic.

And you think ‘pivot to Asia’ or the ‘rebalancing’ is realistic too?
What I am saying is that it doesn’t have to be a huge shift. What it needs to do is to restore a sense that we are inherently engaged in Asia, that we are an Asian power and we intend to play a role in the broader western pacific, that our alliances there are very important to us, that we are distracted for a while in the Persian Gulf and Iraq and Afghanistan but now we are rebalancing. We are still focused on the Middle East, but we are also focused on East Asia. In some sense, we are just revitalizing the tools and alliances and the operations that we did before. So in some ways there isn’t that much that’s all that new. But yes, I think we’ve had enough capability to do that. It did not require a lot of new forces; it simply required a few specific changes together with more rhetoric, more clarity in our doctrine, diplomacy that reinforced it, and basically told everyone that the United States is back in this region. We are not looking for a fight, we are not looking to over-militarize the theater, but we are trying to restore a sense of energy to our role in this part of the world.

But in some aspects, people might think that it’s going to cause some conflicts between the U.S. and China. In addition, China seems to be struggling for the supremacy over the world with the U.S. In this aspect, what do you think it means to the Korean Peninsula?
Well, first of all, I don’t think that China and the United States are struggling for global supremacy. I think those are your words, not the way I would describe it.

I’m not sure if the U.S. thinks so, but maybe China might think in that way.
I am not sure if China thinks that way either. That can be your interpretation if you want but it’s not my interpretation. As you know, your second question was about what are China’s motives and I told you I don’t think they figured out. There are no motives yet. If you look at the Chinese government, they have different motives among different people. I think some of them simply want the global economic system to keep working the way it’s been working but for China to have a little more of a leadership role because it’s getting more powerful, it’s the number two economy and so force. Others would probably like to win some military battles or at least to win some confrontations that don’t require actual shooting over issues like Senkaku Islands or the Spratly Islands. And others just have much more sense of general vague sense but a broad sense of wanting to exercise more leverage through national power on the world stage. I don’t think it’s a simple thing to say that China wants the global supremacy. But I do think, coming back to Korea, obviously the first thing to say is ‘Koreans will decide’ how they want to handle their relations with China and the United States. Second thing to say is, I think that most South Koreans I know would prefer to have good relations with both China and the United States. The idea of having to choose is a bad choice. Third, we do need to help our South Korean friends feel that they have certain amount of security especially given that North Korea is still a mess. And fourth, we have to anticipate that things will be different if North Korea ever goes away or reunifies with South Korea. It will be a whole different world. And Koreans will have to make a whole new set of choices and we have to accept whatever they decide. But Koreans, I guess the last thing I would say, if we get to that point, and then Koreans do make a choice, and perhaps they ask us to leave, perhaps Koreans ask us to take our military forces entirely off the peninsula, that’s possible. But if it happens, it’s important for Koreans to know that we might not come back if they change their mind. In other words, it’s hard to just make a change and then make another change and reverse the change, and it’s especially difficult if we are invited back after there’s a crisis between China and Korea. That would not be a good time for us to come back because then you are already involved in a crisis and it’s more dangerous and difficult for us to return because there’s no clear deterrence, we haven’t kept forces on the peninsula, we have to reestablish ways of the military cooperation. So I think it will be fine for the South Koreans to make any decisions they want about the future of their alliance with the United States as long as they realize that once they ask us to leave, that we might not return and as long as Koreans understand that, we should respect whatever choice they make. But my guess is that’s a long term problem. In a short term, we have enough common interest in dealing with North Korea that I think that’s the better way to understand the U.S-ROK alliance. Not about who’s running the world, or whether China is going to win over the United States much more about dealing with the immediacy of the North Korean threat.

It has been a failure in solving the North Korea nuclear crisis. What do you think is the efficient solution for it?
Well, I wrote a book on this in 2003. And I think first thing to say is, first of all, we cannot be sure if there is any solution as long as North Korea is still run by a Stalinist regime like the Kim family. This is a very very difficult group of people, very paranoid, very angry, very self-righteous, and very cruel, cruel to your fellow Korean people much more than to anyone else. And so, I think that we have to be realistic that this is not a country where we should expect a breakthrough just because we get our own policy right. Having said that, I do think there is a better way to organize our policy which is to make it clear to the North Koreans that if they would like to reform their country the way that Vietnam reformed its country even keeping a communist system, we are ready to help. But that requires a big change on the nuclear issue, on the human rights issue. Democracy, maybe later: On democracy, this is where I am pragmatic. What I am trying to say is Vietnam is not democratic today, China’s not democratic today. I would not insist that North Korea become democratic but I do think they have to get rid of this big prisons, I think they have to start to denuclearize, I think they have to reduce the size of the military. If they can do those things and then begin some economic reforms, I think we can help them try to do that with economic aid, investment, etc. But I think it should be step by step and it’s going to have to wait for the North Koreans to be willing to engage on the same path themselves.

Some people say Kim Jung-Un’s North Korea would try to change the system from “military first” to the “economy first”. Do you agree or disagree with it?
Well, I don’t think anybody can know. I don’t think we know that. So what I’m trying to do is to give them an incentive to do that. That’s what we should want them to do. And they are going to have to make the decision. We don’t know what decision they will make. We can be sure there are a lot of people in the North Korean government who will not like that idea because they will want to keep same forces for the military and they want to keep same form of dictatorship that’s good for them. And any time you start to make a change, you run the risk of losing control of the process and that’s very dangerous. So I think we can be pretty confident that it will be very difficult for Kim Jong-Un to make big changes while he is just 29 years old and in his first or second year in power. So I think it’s going to take a while and I think what we can do is to clarify what we would do to help if they ever make the kinds of decisions that are necessary for this to work. And we have to be patient.

Maybe, change into some kind of system that China has?
That’s what I think is the most realistic. If they want to change some other way, we should listen to what they want to do. But I think Chinese and the Vietnamese models are the most probable and likely and we could live with that I think.

The U.S. has been demanding South Korea to participate in the MD (Missile Defense). If Korea participates in MD, what would be the gains and losses?
Well, first of all, South Korea is going to make its own decisions but obviously, we have to protect our own forces on the Korean Peninsula. And if there’s ever a war, we are going to have North Korean missiles being shot at both of us on the peninsula. So that’s why cooperation would be nice but I don’t think there is any need for the United States to pressure South Korea about this. If Korea doesn’t want to cooperate on the certain missile defense system, since South Korea’s got a lot of other military priorities, they can devote resources to those and we can protect our own forces. But I would rather see it done cooperatively because if there is a war, South Korean cities and major military bases are going to be attacked I think, and we want to see those protected because we care about our ally. We are in this common fight. But we cannot make those decisions force South Korea, so I think we will have to let the South Koreans decide. I don’t think there is any downside to doing it. Of course North Koreans will complain but it’s a ridiculous complain because the only reason that South Korea needs this missile defenses is because of North Korea’s hostility and North Korea’s missiles that could be fired at South Korea. So we don’t want to give North Korea the feeling that their complaints are legitimate, they are not legitimate. But the only other consideration is that there is not that much money. South Korea does have to worry about limited resources. And so, if they decide not to invest in Missile Defense for a certain period of time, I think we have to just accept that and move on.

North Korea declared to launch a rocket, which is believed to be a missile. Why do you think so, at this point of time?
Well, it’s hard to understand North Korean motives. But I do think they generate crisis partly because they get a tension during crisis. And that, sometimes, it leads to decision by America, South Korea or other countries to offer them more negotiations, maybe even to ultimately offer them a new kind of deal. It’s a way they get attention. And frankly, a missile test is not that horrible compared to a nuclear test. It’s not good, but it’s not horrible. And so, I think we have to understand it partly in those terms and also partly as a result of bureaucratic politics. Kim Jong-Un probably needs to let the military do some of the things that they want in order to show that he is not against the military. And then, maybe, that gives him some ability later to make some decisions that military may not like because he is at least established a certain amount of support and credibility. That’s what I hope.

If they launch it, what would be the Obama Administration’s response to it?
Probably some limited form of modest sanctions. But I don’t think it will rise to a big issue because again, it’s not as bad as the nuclear test or sinking of the Cheonan(천안함) in 2010 where they killed 46 South Koreans as you know. It’s not as bad as that. It’s not good because it does allow them to threaten us more effectively. But I think there will be some response therefore, but it will not be huge: Some kind of additional sanctions or diplomatic complaints or something like that.

Lastly, would you have any recommendations for South Korea’s strategies in G2 era?
I still think that going back to the basic approach that Michael Mochizuki and I wrote about in our book in 2003 where we talked about a grand bargain trying to get North Korea to move in the Vietnam and China directions. That’s the right way to go. It requires reciprocation by both sides, it requires step by step progress but you should have a vision that you agree on at the beginning and that can help you work towards the goals one by one.

Thank you very much.
Sure. Thanks for coming.


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