FPI Bulletin: Suggested Questions for SFRC Hearing on East Asian Security

May 13, 2015

This afternoon, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing on safeguarding American interests in the East and South China Seas.  Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs David Shear will testify.

The Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) continues to monitor the evolving security situation in the Asia-Pacific, and believes the following questions will be helpful for Senators and their staff as they prepare for this important hearing.

North Korea

South Korean intelligence officials reported today that Hyon Yong Chol, the North Korean defense minister was executed by antiaircraft fire for sleeping in meetings and talking back to the country’s dictator, Kim Jong Un.  He is the fourth person to hold that post in the past two and a half years.  As the Wall Street Journal notes in its coverage today, several other officials were also removed from their posts, and that this incident is the latest in several purges since Kim came to power in 2011.

  • Mr. Russel, what does this incident say about the stability of the North Korean regime and Kim Jong Un’s hold on power?

This weekend, North Korea reportedly conducted an ejection test of a KN-11 ballistic missile.  Though media reports citing U.S. intelligence officials indicate that the missile was not launched from a submarine, North Korea claims that it was.

  • Mr. Shear, can you answer whether this missile was launched from a submarine or not? Can you describe North Korea’s progress toward testing and fielding the KN-11 missile? 
  • Can you describe the threat posed by the KN-11 missile and the road-mobile KN-08 missile to U.S. and regional security?

A South Korean military official said Monday that the North appears on track to deploy in four to five years a fully operational submarine capable of launching ballistic missiles.

  • Mr. Shear, can you likewise describe the capability of North Korea’s ballistic missile submarine, and the U.S. understanding of North Korea’s goals with this craft?
  • The Associated Press notes that North Korea has as many as 70 submarines, many of which were Soviet-era Golf-class vessels acquired from Russia in the 1990s.  Can you describe the capabilities of these vessels in comparison to what the administration expects North Korea’s new submarine to have?

The Wall Street Journal reported in April that “China’s top nuclear experts” estimate “that North Korea may already have 20 [nuclear] warheads, as well as the capability of producing enough weapons-grade uranium to double its arsenal by next year, according to people briefed on the matter.

  • Mr. Shear, does the Department of Defense concur with this estimate of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities?

Likewise, in December, Josh Rogin and Eli Lake from Bloomberg View reported, “A new analysis of North Korea’s nuclear program by a group of top U.S. experts, led by David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, estimates that North Korea could have enough material for 79 nuclear weapons by 2020.”

  • Mr. Shear, does the Department of Defense also believe that North Korea will have enough material for almost 80 nuclear weapons in five years’ time?

China in the South China Sea

The Defense Department reported Friday that China has built 2,000 acres of artificial islands in the South China Sea by dredging sand from the surrounding reefs, and that figure is expected to be far exceeded by the end of the year. In one such area, China is building a 10,000 foot long concrete runway that will be capable of handling military aircraft.  The New York Times reports that Beijing is expected to install radar and missile sites in the area to intimidate its neighbors and expand its control of the waters.

  • Mr. Shear, can you describe the extent of China’s military presence in the South China Sea as well as its non-military assets that it uses for strategic objectives, such as its Coast Guard? 
  • Do you agree with the Times that “China is working so quickly that its assertion of sovereignty could become a fait accompli before anything can be done to stop it?”
  • Mr. Russel, does there remain any doubt that China’s ultimate objective is to claim disputed territories through the use of force?  Can you explain why such behavior represents a flagrant violation of international law?

Admiral Samuel Locklear of U.S. Pacific Command told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month that China’s facilities in the South China Sea could ultimately allow Chinese warplanes to enforce a potential air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the area, such as the one it declared in the East China Sea in November 2013. He also testified, “Southeast Asian nations are increasingly worried that PRC's new capabilities will allow China to take de facto control of the surrounding waters” in the South China Sea.

  • Mr. Shear, Mr. Russel, do you believe Beijing is laying the groundwork for an Air Defense Identification Zone in the South China Sea?
  •  Do you believe China’s ultimate objective is to take de facto control of the surrounding waters?  What actions is the United States taking to deter or prevent China from achieving that objective?
  • What would the consequences be for the United States and the region if China were to establish de facto control over the South China Sea?

The Wall Street Journal reports today that “The U.S. military is considering using aircraft and Navy ships to directly contest Chinese territorial claims to [the Spratly Islands]...Defense Secretary Ash Carter has asked his staff to look at options that include flying Navy surveillance aircraft over the islands and sending U.S. naval ships to within 12 nautical miles of reefs that have been built up and claimed by the Chinese.”

  • Mr. Shear, what other options is the administration considering to deter China’s aggressive behavior in the Spratly Islands?

Mr. Russell, as you know, China has often asserted its sovereignty over the South China Sea on the basis of the so-called “nine-dash line”. Last year, you testified unequivocally that there is no legal basis for such claims; you said, “Maritime claims in the South China Sea must be derived from land features” and that “Any use of the ‘nine dash line’ by China to claim maritime rights not based on claimed land features would be inconsistent with international law.” You added that the U.S. would welcome an adjustment or clarification of China’s claims.

  • Mr. Russell, has China either adjusted its claims to conform to international law or has it clarified the supposed legal basis for the nine-dash line?
  • What is your assessment of why the Chinese government advances such transparently false and provocative claims?
  • Do you believe that China is willing to risk war with its neighbors and/or the United States in order to assert its sovereignty over the disputed waters? Or will it retreat once the U.S. and its allies demonstrate greater resolve?

China’s Military Modernization

China recently announced that its defense budget would grow another 10 percent in 2015. Although official statistics are not reliable, a leading estimate suggests that Chinese defense spending sped past $200 billion per year in 2014, a six-fold increase over the course of 15 years. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s base budget has fallen by 14 percent over the past five years, and the 2015 Department of Defense report on military and security developments involving the People’s Republic of China finds that “China’s military modernization has the potential to reduce core U.S. military technological advantages.”

  • Mr. Shear, Mr. Russel, in light of these facts, do you agree that the regional balance of power continues to shift in China’s favor?
  • Has it already reached a point where China has a military advantage over the United States in regional waters, inside the “first island chain”?
  • Is it possible to begin shifting the balance back in our favor while sequestration remains in place?
  • Does the continuing shift in China’s favor undermine the U.S. ability to deter provocative behavior, such as China’s intimidation tactics in the South and East China Seas? 

In the 2015 posture statement for U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Locklear chronicled China’s extensive military modernization programs.  It is pursuing an “aggressive ship building program to produce and field advanced frigates, destroyers, and the first in-class cruiser-sized warship,” and will soon begin construction of its first indigenously-produced aircraft carrier.

  • Mr. Shear, can you summarize what capabilities these new platforms will have in comparison to the U.S. Navy, and those of our regional allies?
  • To what extent will China’s new naval capabilities facilitate its efforts to enforce its claims in the South and East China Seas?
  • Mr. Russel, how are America’s regional partners and allies responding to the quantitative and qualitative growth in China’s military?

Admiral Locklear also reported that, by the end of this decade, Beijing will have as many as eight ballistic missile submarines with nuclear missiles that can target the United States—giving China its “first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent.”  In addition, Beijing is improving the “lethality and survivability of its attack submarines with the introduction of quiet, high-end, diesel-powered and nuclear-powered submarines.”

  • Mr. Shear, for what purpose is China developing this sea-based nuclear deterrent?
  • How will these attack and ballistic missile submarines affect the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific?

China recently released new images of Chinese aircraft taking off from its aircraft carrier, the Liaoning.

  • Mr. Shear, can you update this committee on the progress of China’s training program for aircraft carrier operations?
  • Can you also update this committee on the capabilities and improvements that China’s next aircraft carrier—its first to be indigenously produced—will have in comparison to the Liaoning?
  • Will these new capabilities facilitate China’s efforts to enforce its claims in the East and South China Seas?

Some U.S. lawmakers and military leaders have expressed their hope that the administration would cancel China’s invitation to attend next year’s RIMPAC military exercises.

  • Mr. Shear, in light of China’s continued regional aggression, can you explain why China should be invited to participate in next year’s exercise?
  • What does the fact that China sent an intelligence vessel to monitor the 2014 RIMPAC exercises when it was invited to participate in them say about China’s distrust of its neighbors and the United States?


In the 12 months between March 2014 and March 2015, Japan launched 943 intercept missions against Chinese and Russian aircraft—one short of its record in 1984.

  • Mr. Shear, can you describe Moscow and Beijing’s purpose in mounting such an aggressive pattern of air intrusions? 
  • Mr. Russel, can you describe what steps the United States is taking to assure Tokyo of our support for their security in the face of this aggressive behavior?

The new U.S.-Japanese security guidelines that were unveiled before Prime Minister Abe’s visit pledge that Washington and Tokyo will “take measures to ensure Japan’s peace and security in all phases, from peacetime to contingencies, including situations where an armed attack against Japan is not involved.” During his press conference with the Premier, President Obama reiterated, “our treaty commitment to Japan’s security is absolute, and that Article 5 covers all territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku Islands…and the United States and Japan are united in our commitment to freedom of navigation, respect for international law, and the peaceful resolution of disputes without coercion.”

  • Mr. Shear, Mr. Russel, can you detail how the new security guidelines would affect a U.S.-Japanese response to Chinese encroachment against the Senkaku islands?
  • In addition to the new guidelines, Japan has reinterpreted its constitution to allow a right to collective self-defense. Can you describe Japan’s goals in this ongoing reevaluation of its global role?


In a speech on April 6, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said “passing TPP is as important to me as another aircraft carrier.  It would deepen our alliances and partnerships abroad and underscore our lasting commitment to the Asia-Pacific.  And it would help us promote a global order that reflects both our interests and our values.”

  • Mr. Shear, Mr. Russel, can you expand on the Secretary’s remarks regarding the strategic importance and security benefits of approving the Trans-Pacific Partnership?  How will this free trade agreement help us “deepen our alliances” and “promote a global order that reflects both our interests and our values?”
  • President Obama has also warned that if TPP is not approved, then ““China, the 800-pound gorilla in Asia will create its own set of rules.”  Can you detail the strategic consequences for the United States if TPP is not approved, and China creates “its own set of rules?”


Admiral Locklear told the House Armed Services Committee last month that Russia “in the last few months has returned to I would say nearly a Cold War level of activity that goes towards our homeland.”  He added that “Russian Navy and Long Range Aviation operational tempo have recently increased significantly.”  Specifically, two nuclear-capable Russian bomber aircraft intruded into the U.S. air defense zone near Alaska in late April. 

  • Mr. Shear, in light of General Breedlove’s comments on April 30 that the number of Russian flights in Europe is “about norm,” can you describe why Russia has become so provocative in the Asia-Pacific?
  • According to news reports, U.S. and Canadian jets intercepted Russian bombers on at least six occasions during last year’s Russian training cycle, and intruding Russian long-range bomber aircraft were detected on 10 occasions.  Do you believe that Russia will conduct more, fewer, or about the same number of aggressive flights this year?  Why?

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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