The American Lake: Superpower Conflict in the Pacific

Interview with Lyuba Zarsky

By Phil Esmonde (interviewer) | 1987-08-01 12:00:00

Peace Magazine: Lyuba, your new book, American Lake, postulates that the peace movement should be paying far more attention to the Pacific. Canada is a Pacific country. What links Canada to the militarization of the Pacific?

ZARSKY: Since the late 1970s the Pacific has experienced a nuclear buildup, led by the U.S., Canada and the other allies support this buildup by joining in exercises, including a provocative one called "Fleetex" off the coast of the Soviet Far East shortly after the Korean Airliner was shot down by the Soviets. Canada also participates every two years in a big multilateral exercise in Hawaii, called Rimpac. Canada hosts visiting warships when they come into port; it provides a test range at Nanoose Bay to perfect U.S. anti-submarine warfare strategy. Canada is accomplice in the reassertion of American power.

P.M.: What do you mean, "the strategy?"

Zarsky: In the early _70s, America had just lost the bloody war in Vietnam. Within the American foreign policy elite, the thrust was to retrench, to define priorities and to put more "responsibility" (as it was put) on the allies to conduct intervention. By the late 1970s, this was reversed; with Reagan, came a new strategic doctrine dominated American military thinking. It held that the U.S. had to be prepared militarily to protect its global interests everywhere. The centrepiece was the Maritime Strategy, that viewed the U.S. as primarily a naval power that must maintain sea superiority everywhere. The Maritime Strategy aims to increase the number of ships deployed to 600, about half of which would be in the Pacific.

PM: What does this mean for tensions in the Pacific?

Zarsky: The doctrine has two components, both risky. The concerns globalism. The old idea was that, in a war with the USSR, the primary front would be in Europe. Pacific forces would swing to the European theatre. Now the idea is that, should a war erupt in one place (for example, in the Middle East) the U.S. would attack in the Far East as well as in Europe, thus surrounding the Soviet Union and stretching it very thin. The Maritime Strategy calls for aggressive U.S. Navy deployment at the very doorstep of the Soviet Union. In this way, they would try to (as they say) "take out" the Soviet Pacific fleet in the first few minutes.

The second, even more dangerous, shift in strategic thinking is to the view that the U.S. can use nuclear weapons in a war without its escalating to a global exchange. Back in the 1950s, when the U.S. was vastly superior to the Soviets, this view dominated American strategic policy. But during the 1960s and '70s, the Soviets attained nuclear parity -- the capability to threaten such a counter-attack that any use of nuclear weapons became unthinkable. if you use a nuclear weapon anywhere, pretty soon you'd be involved in a full-fledged war. With the "new militarists" -- those who gained power in 1981 -- came a renewal of this idea of a "limited" nuclear war. This, the Soviets have said, is not possible.

The Pentagon talks about a limited nuclear war at two Pacific places. First, at sea, they imagine a shoot-out, where the U.S. Navy makes a "surgical" nuclear strike against the Soviet Pacific fleet, destroys it' and the Soviets don't target any land forces. It's neat It stays at sea. They don't ask what the radiation from such an event might mean.

The second scenario for a limited nuclear war is in Korea. We argue in American Lake that Korea is the most dangerous flash point in the world for a nuclear war to erupt. In Korea, the United States maintains a nuclear tripwire: should the North be perceived to be attacking, the U.S. would immediately respond with the nuclear weapons stored in Korea. There are 40,00 American troops, and 150 nuclear weapons; they threaten instant retaliation to any attack, guaranteeing that the U.S. would immediately be drawn into a war in the peninsula. North Korea has no nuclear weapons, but it is allied to key nuclear powers, China and the Soviet Union.

Remember, Korea is high in the Northern Pacific. It borders with China and the Soviet Union. The Soviets, right near Korea, have their key Pacific bases at Vladivostok and Petropavlovsk. A lot of boats go in there -- boats that collide, even during peace time.

P.M.: Have there been actual collisions?

Zarsky: Yes, there was a collision while the U.S. was searching for the wreckage of the KAL liner. There are near-collisions and little collisions all the time.

P.M.: So, if the recent Persian Gulf incident, where the USS Stark was hit, had taken place in the Korean peninsula, it would have been much more dangerous. What specifically keeps tension levels so high in Korea?

Zarsky: The political context is so dangerous in Korea. The U.S. maintains a nuclear trip-wire in Germany, too, but Germany is a stable place. East and West Germany talk to each other; they have regular exchanges. In Korea, North and South are still technically at war. They did not sign the armistice. Over half a million North and South Korean troops face each other across a thin strip called the de-militarized zone. They are hostile, paranoid, and offensively deployed. And within South Korea, the ruling military government faces a democratic opposition. Those fights are brutal! South Korea will continue to be a volatile, turbulent place.

Within that context you have the possibility for mis-identification of actors. The regime constantly accuses the student radicals of being North Korean infiltrators. We don't believe that, but it's not clear who the "enemy" is. Having nuclear weapons in this region is sheer lunacy. What is needed is for American and Soviet nuclear forces to disengage and create a nuclear free zone in that area. Use the diplomatic leverage of the U.S., China, and the Soviet Union to reduce the offensive forces in North and South Korea and get a political solution.

P.M.: You broaden disengagement strategy beyond the Korean peninsula to include the North-west Pacific. How realistic is disengagement and how might it be attained?

Zarsky: We haven't talked yet about the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union has responded to this very aggressive U.S. buildup, primarily with a very large land-based nuclear arsenal (mainly 5520s) in Asia. It has also expanded its own navy, which is still mostly devoted to coastal defence.

Just in the last few weeks, Secretary General Gorbachev proposed the withdrawal of all 5520s from Asia. The United States's response was, "No, let's keep some there." It is very loathe to have its own naval nuclear weapons be up for arms control. So under the current administration, there's little prospect of complete disengagement. But, with the situation in Korea so dangerous, there have been initiatives to thaw a bit. The U.S. has told its State Department people that they should be talking to the North Koreans. There may be some kind of tripartite talks with China soon. There is Soviet political will right now for disarmament in the Pacific.

But the greatest hope for disarmament throughout the Pacific comes from initiatives at the grassroots level and in some cases, at the governmental level. For example, New Zealand's ban on warships was a statement about how people in the Pacific feel. It's not the only one; Vanuatu also has such a ban. The nations of the South Pacific proposed a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone. The United States wouldn't sign it. A vision of nonalignment is emerging in the Pacific, with regional institutions for conflict resolution and economic cooperation, rather than hostility and military buildup.

P.M.: The United States is ahead of the Soviet Union in anti-submarine warfare and the Soviet Union, from what I hear, is trying to catch up however it can. In the spy case in the United States, the Walkers were trying to get technological data on anti-submarine warfare. These subs are under the ocean, travelling in "valleys" in the ocean. They are very undetectable. How do we bring about disengagement?

Zarsky: Canadians could take a very significant step -making the Arctic a zone of peace. There are two broad categories of submarines. One is the big subs that carry intercontinental ballistic missiles. They form the third leg of a triad -- land-based, air-based, and now sub-based missiles. These are the missiles on which nuclear deterrence is based. For there to be a balance, each side has to feel that they can retaliate. From the Soviet view, even if the United States could wipe out Soviet capability to retaliate, they still have these ICBM subs and could still counter-attack.

The other kind of submarines is attack submarines. They especially attack the subs carrying the big long-range missiles. Over the last few years the U.S. has developed its ability to knock out Soviet ballistic-missile-carrying subs. This has scared the Soviets, and their strategy has been to hide these big subs in their own Arctic -- put them there, bunched up together, so that even if the U.S. could get its own attack boats in there, they couldn't get them all. The Soviets would be able to knock them out and still threaten the American mainland. Now the U.S. is practicing and refining its capability to get into the Arctic waters, and try to eliminate the hidden Soviet subs early in a war, knocking out that leg of the triad. I think that a "triad" deterrence is mad and that we must move toward arms control and disarmament, but the anti-submarine warfare is refining a war-fighting capability, making it possible for the United States to contemplate fighting a nuclear war. It is the single most aggressive, dangerous thing the United States is doing.

Coming through the Canadian Arctic is part of this strategy. The Canadian government, in response to this strategy, says it will build its own nuclear subs and patrol these waters. This not only misses the point but contributes to the anti-submarine warfare strategy. This government is saying to the United States, "Hey, we'll patrol these waters ourselves. We'll be here, knocking out the Soviets. We want our own capability, which will certainly support the American anti-submarine warfare strategy."

A more promising move for Canada is to say, "We see that the nuclearization of the Arctic is on the agenda, and we will keep that from happening -- not only to avoid nuclear accidents in the pristine Arctic waters, but because we won't contribute to the nuclear arms race. We are going to make the Arctic a zone of peace, a demilitarized zone." That statement would be so powerful!

P.M.: Would you comment on the "Soviet threat" posed by the actual increase of the Soviet naval forces?

Zarsky: Yes. Sometimes the "threat" rhetoric borders on hysterical. The real threat to the U.S. is the alignment of its own allies with the growing Nuclear Free Pacific movement.

A lot is made about a Soviet naval thrust into the region. It's true that the Soviets are remodeling and building up their navy, but they lag far behind the United States. The Soviets are going to have a new aircraft carrier for the Pacific in the 1990s, but it won't even be able to launch horizontal take-off airplanes, just vertical take-offs as with helicopters, which haven't a very wide range. Mainly what they do is protect the aircraft carrier itself.

Now, on the one hand, I don't welcome any nation building aircraft carriers. On the other hand, the Soviets are far behind in aircraft technology, and aircraft carriers are, after all, the main weapon used by expansionary powers.

The Soviet forces in the Pacific are primarily defending their border with China, which, for 4500 kilometers, separates them from an unfriendly neighbor. Most of their military capability is aimed at protecting their long coast line. They have two allies in the region, North Korea and Vietnam, compared to the United States, which has such powerful allies as Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Korea, the Philippines. So, diplomatically, they are very weak. And they have been squeezed out of the explosion of economic activity -- trade and investment -- in the Pacific. They trade very little. So in these three dimensions of power -- economic, political, and military -- the Soviets are squeezed out of the Pacific, and there is no evidence that the Soviets have undertaken a major thrust into the region. Usually people talk about the Soviet base in Vietnam -- Cam Ranh Bay. The Soviets are, ironically, at a base that was built by the Americans. It's mainly used for protecting Soviet supplies that come in by sea from the Western to the Eastern parts of its own country.

All of this doesn't mean that the Soviets are a particularly great neighbor in the Pacific. They have their Pacific nuclear arsenal and, if they think they are being attacked conventionally, they will respond with a nuclear attack. So what they are doing is, in effect, substituting risk for capability. It's a very escalatory posture.

P.M.: There is hope in Europe that the U.S. and the Soviet Union will remove medium range missiles. Yet at the same time, I've seen statements from the Americans that we will now have to compensate by launching more weapons on the oceans. Could you share with us the new range of weapons that we are seeing on our oceans?

Zarsky: You're right; there likely will be some kind of arms control agreement in Europe over land-based missiles. But the oceans are like the Wild West in the old American cowboy movies; civilization has come to the town but on the fringes, there's still the rule of the six-shooter. There is no discussion about naval nuclear arms control. They are not even on the negotiating table, but particularly in the Pacific, the recent nuclear buildup has involved the navy, with the Tomahawk cruise missile leading the list of the dangerous new deployments. The Tomahawk complicates the conventional approach to arms control because it's both conventionally and nuclear armed. If you're a Russian, watching a radar screen, and you see a Tomahawk coming, you don't know whether it's nuclear or conventional. Likewise, on warship visits, you don't know whether they're nuclear armed or not, which makes verification difficult. That fact makes another kind of approach to arms control much more promising. I mean the disengagement approach -- creating zones that are off-limits to all nuclear warships of any kind. That is the direction we should push for in the Pacific.

Lyubla Zarsky co-authored American Lake: Peril in the Pacific, alongside Peter Hayes, and Walden Bello. It was released in Canada by Penguin in July. See our Conflict Policy Book Service. She was interviewed on May 30 by Phil Esmonde, who is with the South Pacific People's Foundation in Victoria, B.C.

Peace Magazine Aug-Sep 1987

Peace Magazine Aug-Sep 1987, page 12. Some rights reserved.

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