Today's date:
Winter 2011

The US Will Remain in the Yellow Sea

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, sat down with reporters in Washington at the Christian Science Monitor breakfast. NPQ’s weekly column, Global Viewpoint, appears in the Monitor. Edited excerpts follow.

NPQ | I’m not going to ask if and when the United States may be going to war against Iran. But should it come to that, what are the pros and cons?

The notion has been floated that some people in the Obama administration feel that Israeli policy toward the Palestinians somehow undermines US national security. Do you feel that Israeli policy is a threat to your men and women in uniform in places like Afghanistan?

Mike Mullen | No, I don’t.

On Iran, I have spoken very clearly for a long time about the consequences and unintended consequences of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons capability and the threat that presents. On the other side, if there were a strike (against Iran), I would worry as much about those unintended consequences as I do about those that we could figure out going in.

So, I am a big supporter of the (approach of) diplomacy-dialogue-sanctions and international pressure.

Iran is in a part of the world that is not very stable. And to continue on the path that I believe it is on, which is to achieve nuclear weapons capability on the one hand, or (provoke) some kind of strike on the other, would result in significant conflict.

The consequences, known and unknown, are extremely serious.

So, that speaks to both the importance and the priority of reaching a conclusion where Iran figures out it is not in its interest to have a nuclear weapon. It is in its best long-term interest to not have that capability. To achieve that state without a strike is optimal. Is it doable? That question is still out there.

NPQ | There is a gathering debate about what China’s military buildup means—whether it is still minimal and essentially defensive, or something to be concerned about. What gives you concern about China in this respect?

Mullen | What concerns me more than anything else is what I don’t know. China’s defense budget—the defense budget we can see—has gone up fairly dramatically. There is ample evidence that we don’t see the entirety of that defense budget and actually don’t know what it is.

I am concerned about some of the knowns—specifically, the anti-carrier ballistic missile that the Chinese are developing. There is a tremendous investment in what I would call the maritime world, particularly on their eastern seaboard.

They are very aggressive in the waters off their east coast, South China Sea, East China Sea and even the Yellow Sea. You saw what happened when Secretary (of State Hillary) Clinton talked about a unity of effort that included us with respect to the importance of those sea lanes.

There has been an assertion that we, the US, shouldn’t operate in the Yellow Sea. That is international waters. We’re going to operate in the Yellow Sea. We and others.

So, my concern is less the here and now than it is the future. China has had a pretty significant rise in their its spending for a number of years.

Obviously, a country has a right to build defense capability tied to its national interests, to defending itself. I don’t have a problem with that. As best I can tell, the overarching strategy of the Chinese is to have the kinds of capabilities that will prevent others (from threatening them), although sometimes it is difficult to tell.

The concern is that I can’t sit down and talk to them about it because we’ve got no military-to-military relationships. I certainly don’t have the expectation that if we sit down for discussions that we will agree on everything. But I think it is dangerous to not be able to discuss issues, even if we agree.