*The Kyunghyang Shinmun conducts a series of interviews with experts in the fields of foreign affairs, security, economy, and military, including ‘analysis of the international situation surrounding the Korean Peninsula’ and ‘policy proposals for the next government’. The interview, conducted under the name of the ‘Plaza Project’, will include various diagnoses and alternatives without adding or subtracting under the principle of ‘there is no right and left for diplomatic and security’. We will include content that can be helpful not only to candidates running for president, but also to the general public.
Hyung-wook Boo, Senior Research Fellow, Korea Institute of Defense. / Reporter Young-min Kim
The status quo movement entails conflict. It is a clash between the inertia to protect and the motive to move forward. Just as endless friction generates new energy, conflict creates the power of change. There is no peaceful change in this sense. The international society is no different. The conflict between the United States and China is creating a rupture in the existing order. It is a clash of inertia to achieve a unipolar system and the power to move toward a bipolar system. The international community has to endure the inconvenience caused by their dissonance until a new balance is established.
The fear that change can be a scapegoat stems from this awareness. In a situation where countries are already close politically, economically, and socially, choosing one means breaking with the other. In particular, for Korea, which is located in a strategic location, the choice is directly related to survival. It is for this reason that some have pointed out that a prudent decision should be made by examining changes in US-China relations.
In the 6th episode of the Plaza Project, Hyung-wook Boo, Senior Research Fellow at the Korea Institute of Defense, had a conversation on the topic of ‘the possibility of an armed conflict between the US and China’. The interview was held on November 16th at the Korea Defense Research Institute in Dongdaemun-gu, Seoul.
-How do you rate the US-China video summit?
Hyungwook Boo (hereafter referred to as ‘Bu’) “Last year’s US presidential election was similar to the 1968 presidential election, which was held amid severe divisions due to anti-Vietnam War and human rights movements. When Nixon, who had won the election at the time, entered the White House, the United States was in a state of disrepair. The nuclear force, which had an overwhelming advantage, was being challenged by the Soviet Union, and its national power was exhausted due to the prolonged Vietnam War. The Nixon administration overcame this situation by using a ‘buying time’ strategy. In Europe, by embodying détente with the Soviet Union, an arms race was breathed in, and in Asia, it embraced China. It was a strategy necessary to heal the divided internal wounds of the United States and maintain its international leadership. If America’s luck is not running out, a similar policy should be pursued. The Asian version of détente should be opened. If the US uses the time-buying strategy, the situation on the Korean Peninsula will change positively, and a turning point in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue can be created. Even if the North Korean nuclear issue is not resolved at once, it can prevent further deterioration of the situation and expect progress in denuclearization. The cooperation of the US allies in China’s containment is uncertain, so it can be fully considered.”
– U.S. President Joe Biden made conciliatory remarks, saying ‘I support one China’ and ‘I do not support Taiwan’s independence’.
“The key is to oppose Taiwan’s independence and oppose China’s armed invasion. It should be seen that the strategic ambiguity was maintained. America is already old and in a difficult situation in many ways. That’s why they didn’t go out too hard, but it didn’t change America’s intentions. If conditions improve, America will come out strong again.”
– Even temporarily, if the confrontation between the US and China is eased, will Korea’s pressure to participate in the blockade of the masses lessen?
“I think the opposite. Rather, it appears that the US has now completely given up trying to induce a change in China’s behavior. I don’t think it means anything more than the reconfirmation of various agreements between the US and China. The demands on our allies will be stronger in the future.”
– To what extent is the US-China relationship in crisis compared to the past conflicts?
“Until 2010, at least, the United States was so dominant that it was difficult to say that it was a competition between the United States and China. At that time, China’s economic power was not immediately converted into military power. In fact, during the ‘Third Taiwan Strait Crisis’ in 1996, the United States dispatched two aircraft carriers. That resolved the situation. It was such a humiliation that it was said that the Chinese military ‘shed tears of blood’, realizing the power of the United States at the time. Since then, China has been sharpening its sword and increasing its arms. The results can be seen in the ‘2021 China Military Force Assessment’ data recently published by the US Department of Defense. The report predicts that China’s nuclear weapons will more than triple by 2030. It is estimated that China currently has about 300 nuclear weapons, but in 10 years it will be 1,000. There may be exaggerations in terms of the Ministry of National Defense data, which requires a budget, but it cannot but be surprised. It is a completely different situation than it was about 25 years ago.”
– Then, where is the current power dominance?
“I still can’t play the game. From a global perspective, the United States has the upper hand. But narrowing it down to the Indo-Pacific region tells a different story. In terms of the United States, it corresponds to the Western Pacific region, but if a conflict with China arises immediately, the United States can project only the USFK and US forces in Japan. Clearly, the United States has the strongest military power in the world, but it will take at least a month or more to prepare for war against China. This is a huge time in modern warfare, where victory or defeat is decided within a week. Simply put, it is a situation where there is no cash that can be used right away even if there are many assets.”
– How did China reverse its power inferiority?
Part “Anti-access/area denial strategy. In simple terms, anti-access is a strategy that prevents access to Chinese territorial waters at all. It can be said that it is a strategy with a relatively aggressive concept. For example, it uses missiles or bombers to block approaching enemies. On the other hand, regional denial is a concept that prevents people from freely navigating the seas near China. It’s a relatively defensive concept. China is setting up two naval defense lines in East Asian waters, called ‘breeding lines’. It’s like a 1 bleed line, a 2 bleed line, and so on. The area where US aircraft carriers entered during the ‘3rd Taiwan Strait Crisis’ is within the 1st chain. The anti-access/area denial strategy plans to deploy Dongfeng 17 and Dongfeng 21, which are semi-medium-range ballistic missiles, to catch enemies entering the bleed line. China has increased its forces with this goal, but it has reached a level that can sink U.S. aircraft carriers as well. It’s not a simple matter. The high price of aircraft carriers is also a problem, but the bigger problem is that if an aircraft carrier sinks, the pride of the United States will sink. In addition, about 6,000 soldiers serve on the carrier, which may be buried. It is a political risk that the President of the United States cannot afford.”
Operational Scope of China’s Anti-Access/Area Denial Strategy / Hoehn and Ryder (2021)
-Why did the US fail to respond to China’s strategic moves?
“This is a painful mistake by the United States. For the past 20 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, counter-terrorism and Middle East issues have been hampered. Now that the U.S. has withdrawn from Afghanistan, the power of the United States has already been greatly exhausted. China used this period wisely. Once we developed economic power, we gradually converted it into military power.”
-Doesn’t the US have any countermeasures against this?
“The United States has established an archipelago defense strategy since around 2015. The strategy is to install missile launch bases on the islands surrounding China, as it is difficult for aircraft carriers to enter the bleed line. The most important thing is to secure a ground launch system to be installed on the island. In fact, this strategy has already been abandoned once because it is too aggressive and dangerous. In 1987, during the Cold War, the US and the US signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, in which they agreed to dismantle all ground-launched medium-range missiles with a range of 500 to 5500 km. The signing of the treaty lowered military tensions in Europe and catalyzed the end of the Cold War. The problem, however, is that this treaty only bound the two countries. China started making medium-range missiles because there was no such thing, and after 30 years, it has become a force that threatens US aircraft carriers. In the end, the U.S. turned to abolishing the treaty during the Trump administration and securing a large amount of ground launch systems. An archipelago defense strategy targeting mainland China became possible.”
-Isn’t it possible to bomb even an island if China wants to?
“It’s not that simple. If the islands are used as defensive positions, and missiles are launched, it is not easy to catch them. For example, if a missile is fired from the sea when it detects signs of launch, it is quickly identified by thermal sensing. However, in places where several facilities are present, such as on an island, it is difficult to distinguish them. In addition, the ground launch system can be placed on an island in large quantities and can be fired while moving using a launch vehicle. You can build a factory on the island and produce weapons. No matter how advanced an aircraft carrier is, it’s not as valuable as an island where this is possible. As an extreme example, an aircraft carrier can sink with a single missile hit, but an island cannot easily be sunk even with a nuclear weapon. But there is a more decisive reason than this. The thing is, there are civilians on the island. If civilians are killed by Chinese missiles, China will become an enemy of the international community. America’s strategy is, on the one hand, very clever, but on the other hand, it’s a really scary strategy.”
– Is the Korean Peninsula also included in this strategy?
“It is related to the deployment of prism missiles and strategic long-range artillery called Precision Strike Missiles (PrSM). The prism missile has a range of about 750 km and is being developed by adding a surface-to-ship function. The strategic long-range artillery is a long-range artillery with a range of 1600 km. The finished product will be available in 2023. A 2019 RAND report considered the possibility of deploying strategic long-range artillery to allies and allies in a military conflict with China. According to the report, South Korea is deploying long-range artillery near Mokpo. If the long-range artillery is deployed in Mokpo, much of the southeast coast of China will come within the crossroads. It is a detailed plan that even reflects this, but this drawing has been deleted. That’s America’s strategy. Rather than making an official announcement, they reveal it in a report, etc., and see the reaction. If there’s a lot of resistance, don’t do it. But let’s say North Korea makes a provocation in this situation. We will first find the report and ask you to place it. If a military clash between the US and China occurs when weapons are brought into South Korea using North Korea as an excuse, the facilities can be attacked. Naturally, there will be damage to our people, and Korea will naturally participate in the war against China.”
U.S. military’s strategic long-range artillery deployment review plan / forbes
– Is THAAD the same concept?
“It is part of the Missile Network. In the case of Yoon Seok-yeol, the People’s Power presidential candidate, he left the possibility of additional deployment of THAAD. The U.S. is in a more terrifying situation with anti-ship missiles targeting aircraft carriers beyond Japan than with intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) launched by China. It is to catch it with THAAD. If South Korea decides to deploy THAAD additionally, it is good for the US. This is because China will also check in and Korea will pay the cost. Conversely, we will be at the forefront of an armed conflict between the United States and China under the pretext of holding North Korea in check.”
-At the end of the day, America’s strategy is to share risks with its allies.
Wealth: “Now that our allies have enjoyed economic growth under the international order established by the United States, it is time to contribute to safeguarding that international order. Korea is no exception. The end of the South Korea-US missile guidelines and the South Korean submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) could be a strategic choice for the US. The United States knows that successive dynasties in China have collapsed because they have exhausted their national power by bordering various countries. In this context, there is a possibility of regional dispersion of US forces in Korea and Japan. Since the lower limit on the size of the USFK has also disappeared, the possibility of distributed deployment of forces should be left open.”
Hyung-wook Boo, Senior Research Fellow, Korea Institute of Defense. / Reporter Young-min Kim
– How do you view the ‘worries of abandonment’ and ‘weakening of national defense’ raised by conservative politicians?
“The concern of abandonment is, after all, the issue of the withdrawal of US forces from Korea, and the Korean people remain fearful of the withdrawal of US forces due to the Korean War. It is also true that very strong political energy comes out when stimulated. However, in view of our national strength and national defense, the United States needs us as much as we need the United States. In terms of defense power alone, it belongs to the ranks of major players compared to European countries. If the US gives up on such a country, can it be seen as a proper strategy as a hegemon? By analogy with time, China is playing a tug of war at the 9 o’clock position and the United States at 3 o’clock. Here, Australia pulls the line at 2:30 and Japan around 2 o’clock. It can be said that Korea has been standing and pulling at about 1:30 so far. Korea is not standing at 11 or 12 o’clock. South Korea already has the largest US military base offshore called Pyeongtaek Base. We spent about 20 trillion won on this. Most of South Korea’s growing defense spending goes to buying US weapons. Korea shows such loyalty, how can it be said that it is 11 or 12 o’clock? During the Roh Moo-hyun administration, the government increased its defense budget by 9 trillion won and handed it over to the next government. The Lee Myung-bak administration increased the amount by 8 trillion won, and the Park Geun-hye administration increased it by 6 trillion won and passed it on to the next government. The Moon Jae-in administration will increase the amount of 16 trillion won and hand over it. Regardless of political likes or dislikes, evaluations such as ‘abandoned’ and ‘weakened defense power’ from the US are different from reality.”
– On the other hand, it is pointed out that progressive politicians are close to China because of the North Korean issue.
“Actually, if the relationship between the US and China deteriorates, the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue should be seen as going through the water. It’s not a situation that gets better if we take sides. In this respect, sending a love call to one side is not a good choice. We need to keep the situation slightly inclined on the US side and use it as an opportunity to strengthen ourselves. Even if we jump on the U.S., the premise is that we must have self-reliance. If we have the power, both the US and China will reach out.”
– Can the US-China competition lead to war?
Wealth “I agree with the general perception that ‘Will there be a war?’ Chinese President Xi Jinping has also expressed his view that ‘mutually destructive military clashes should be restrained’. But let’s turn this around. It is reasonable to think that Xi is saying this because, after all, there are movements that actually increase the possibility of armed conflict. With the whole world watching, if the United States is pushed back in the Indo-Pacific region, it will be difficult to maintain its international leadership. If the opponent moves a little, I can’t help but move. From a rational point of view, no country wants war. But historically, was the beginning of the war related to rational judgment? I don’t think it’s optimistic that the situation will lead to war. However, it will be difficult for the two countries to directly confront each other at the risk of the nation’s fate. If that is the case, regional and regional wars are highly likely to occur, and if a war breaks out in the South China Sea or Taiwan, there is a high possibility that the United States will be greatly humiliated.”
-If you would advise the next president.
“First, we must always keep in mind that the era of U.S.-China strategic competition can have negative effects in terms of security on the Korean Peninsula. Strategies to reduce these negative impacts are needed, but in the end, I want to say that self-reliance is the answer. Military self-defense is also linked to OPCON. With the advent of the US-China competition, the US is tightening the conditions for returning OPCON. Regardless of political judgment, at least in terms of military autonomy, a quick recovery of OPCON will help to minimize negative effects. Second, as the problem on the Korean Peninsula worsens, there may be pressure between the US and China to choose between the two countries. Isn’t it too simple to go to the US because North Korea threatens it? It is not too late to lay the groundwork for the two Koreas to actively implement mutual arms control measures and make a choice. Rather than just using the US-China choice for domestic political purposes, we need to think about how we can pull the Korean Peninsula out of the battlefield where the US and China could clash militarily.”