(Chunichi Shimbun: November 11, 2015, Evening edition – p. 2)
Interview with Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS
Q: Some say that the Obama administration’s decision [regarding the “freedom of navigation” operations] was too late.
A: The “freedom of navigation” operations involve both warships and surveillance planes. About five months before the U.S. deployed the Aegis destroyer USS Lassen, it sent a P-8 surveillance plane to the South China Sea where China is engaged in land reclamation.
Q: We understand that there was a difference in opinion between the Obama administration and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) regarding the operations.
A: Even if that were true, the President and the DoD play different roles. The DoD suggests operations to the President. The President, on the other hand, had to consider the impact of operations implementation on foreign policy, such as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States, the impact on the U.S.-China relationship as well as on the Japan-China relationship, and coordination with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Q: How long will the United States continue the operations?
A: The U.S. government has said that it will “dispatch a warship two or more times every quarter (three months).” It will be necessary to send warships and surveillance planes on an intermittent basis until China withdraws its claim that the 12 nautical miles (about 22 km) from the artificial islands are its territorial waters.
Q: Is there a possibility that the situation will escalate into a military confrontation between the United States and China?
A: The possibility is very low, I think. Neither country wants that, and it would benefit no one.
Q: What about the collapse of the power balance between the United States and China?
A: If you were to evaluate the military capabilities of the United States, Japan, and China, on a scale of 1 to 10 setting the United States at “10,” the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) would be “5” and the Chinese military would be “4” or “3.” China is enhancing its military capabilities, but there is still a large gap between it and the U.S military.
The SDF does not have nuclear weapons or strategic bombers. In terms of naval and air capabilities, however, the SDF is superior to the Chinese military. Also, the United States has allies, like Japan and Australia, in the region. I do not see the power balance between the United States and China shifting in the future either.
Q: What is the role of the SDF?
A: The main duty of the SDF is to defend Japan, and they should not participate in the “freedom of navigation” operations. If the SDF were to engage in the patrolling of the South China Sea, there is a risk the Chinese would increase their activities in the area around the Senkakus. The Japanese government should contribute to capacity building in South China Sea countries through such means as providing patrol boats, cooperating in maritime exercises, and sharing information.
Profile: Ralph Cossa is currently based in Hawaii. Mr. Cossa served in the U.S. Air Force from 1966 to 1993, achieving the rank of colonel and last serving as special assistant to the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command. He was a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and deputy director at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies.