The biggest US military realignment in a generation may be underway in the Asia-Pacific. But most Americans know nothing about it.
Unveiled in 2011, the “Pacific Pivot” aims to transition US military and diplomatic resources away from the Middle East and toward the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.
The United States already has enormous resources invested in the region – including tens of thousands of troops, large aircraft carrier groups, and mutual defense treaties with powerful countries like South Korea and Japan. The pivot aims to bolster that military presence, as well as secure more political cooperation from US allies and boost trade through major pacts like the Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP.
“The United States is a Pacific Power,” President Obama told the Australian parliament in November 2011, “and we are here to stay.” In the shadow of a rising China, Obama promised that Washington “will allocate the resources necessary to maintain our strong military presence in this region.”
In a sprawling 5,500-word article in Foreign Policy, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described America’s role in the region as “vital,” “essential,” and “irreplaceable.” For a few companies, it could also be lucrative: Key components of the strategy, Clinton explained in 2011, are strategic economic partnerships and international trade agreements like the TPP.
Under pressure from the Bernie Sanders campaign, Clinton says she now opposes the TPP. But it remains a key plank of the US strategy to pull countries in the region into its sphere of influence. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has said that “passing TPP is as important to me as another aircraft carrier” – though he’s asking for actual armaments too, including “high-end capabilities” like the new long-range stealth bomber and anti-ship cruise missiles.
Though overshadowed by unrest in the Middle East, the pivot remains very much underway. Already the US has expanded and established new military exercises and agreements with Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, and other parts of Southeast Asia – as well as Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Mongolia, and even China.
The linchpin of this military realignment is my home state of Hawaii, which has hosted the headquarters of the US Pacific Command, or USPACOM, for almost 70 years.
Based on the island of Oahu, USPACOM claims the Asia-Pacific as its “area of responsibility.” Home to 36 nations – and more than half the world’s population – the region stretches, in the words of top military brass, “from Bollywood to Hollywood and penguins to polar bears.”
Unfortunately, members of Congress who should be prepared to explain their positions aren’t talking. Specifically, I’m referring to Hawaii’s four-person congressional delegation – which represents the one US state that truly is Asian and Pacific.
I spent over a year reaching out to Senators Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono and Representatives Tulsi Gabbard and Mark Takai. Collectively the four Democrats serve on committees, subcommittees, and caucuses that oversee foreign affairs, intelligence, naval issues, four branches of the military, and relations with critical Asia-Pacific nations, among other relevant portfolios. Furthermore, both Gabbard and Takai are active members of the National Guard and have served in the Middle East.
None of the four was willing to be interviewed about their views on the pivot, or US military policy in Asia more generally. I learned this after making dozens of phone calls and sending scores of emails over a 13-month period. I even approached Gabbard, whom I’ve interviewed before, in person following a Veteran’s Day ceremony in an attempt to schedule an interview.
Sometimes patience and persistence just aren’t enough. Even after submitting questions and providing an editor’s letter of intent (for Hirono), none would take my questions in writing, in person, or by telephone. Staff responses were sporadic and difficult to get.
Finally, my requests were ultimately denied without explanation.
These weren’t “gotcha questions” designed to elicit an embarrassing response. They were straightforward and honest inquiries related to US policy in a key region of the world – all on subjects each of the four should have been prepared to discuss with the media.
Here were a few them:
1. In May 2015, Schatz, Hirono, and Gabbard all met with Takeshi Onaga, who governs the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa – a small island that plays host to the vast majority of US military installations in Japan. Onaga was visiting Hawaii to protest a plan, favored by both Washington and Tokyo, to build a new Marine base in Okinawa despite overwhelming local opposition, more than a year of continuous protests, and the plan’s disputed legal status.
There are more than 30 US bases on Okinawa already. Do the members support construction of the new base? If so, do they believe the way the dispute has been handled is consistent with the US values of freedom, democracy, and human rights?
2. Obama, Carter, and USPACOM’s Admiral Harry B. Harris have criticized China for militarizing the South China Sea, accusing Beijing of both inflicting environmental damage and destabilizing of the region. Doesn’t the increasing US military presence also threaten to bring environmental damage and instability to Okinawa, the Philippines, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, the Marshall Islands, the South China Sea, and elsewhere?
3. In 2014, the US military conducted 425 “signed activities” and rotated 3,700 of its own forces through the Philippines under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which gives the US broad access to operate and pre-position weapons and troops inside Philippine military bases.
The agreement was not voted on or ratified by the Philippine Senate or US Congress. It’s opposed by many Filipinos, who say it violates their sovereignty and risks drawing them into US conflicts with China. Additionally, after the initial ten-year term, EDCA automatically extends, meaning it’s not really a “ten year” agreement. Do you think Congress should debate the terms and degree to which US forces can operate under an open-ended agreement in a foreign country?
4. The Korean peninsula, one of the most heavily militarized places on earth, remains home to some 28,500 US troops – with more at least 800 more added during the pivot. In light of this massive troop presence – and not to mention the tremendous destruction of North Korea by the United States during the Korean War and a climate of mutual threats and posturing ever since – are the US and South Korea making a bad situation worse every time they conduct large-scale annual war games on North Korea’s frontier?
For example, when the US flies nuclear capable B-52 and B-2 stealth bombers in drills near the North Korean border to “send a message” to Pyongyang, is this the best way to finally end the Korean War? Can provocative measures like these lead to reunification, or are we just provoking North Korea, playing a warmongering yin to North Korea’s yang?
Other questions considered the United States’ responsibility to address lingering health and environmental damage from nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, the environmental impact of expanding live-fire testing in the Northern Mariana Islands, and the implications of military cuts in Hawaii and increases in Guam.
None was answered.
Don’t Ask. Don’t Tell.
In her article promoting the pivot, Hillary Clinton wrote that the US presence in the Asia-Pacific “ensures stability and security” and “defends freedom and transparency in the military activities of the region’s key players.”
Yet all four members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation spent more than a year avoiding a journalist – and a constituent – trying to conduct a single interview on the subject. There’s nothing transparent about that at all, especially since Hawaii is the headquarters for many of these operations.
That’s a shame. Because real answers to these questions might have exposed a system that puts military, political, and financial institutional interests above those of a truly just and peaceful society.
Here are a few other questions.
Rep. Gabbard recently made headlines after her endorsement of Bernie Sanders, ostensibly because of her concerns about “the cost of war.” Does that sentiment extend to having an open and frank discussion of the militarized Pacific?
Will the Pacific pivot actually create a safer, more secure world, or preserve a status quo that ensures the sale of a lot of expensive weapons systems? Does the broader rebalancing promote human rights – consider how increased militarization impacts North Korean civilians or curtails press freedoms in Japan, for example – and stability? Or does it promote and expand a global order in which trade agreements are as important as new aircraft carriers?
As a nation, we have no qualms about militarizing distant lands and stationing tens of thousands of our own soldiers in other people’s countries for decades on end. But would we accept a fraction of the same treatment for even one minute?
Perhaps one day another reporter will gain access and ask such questions to members of Congress. But for now I’m not holding my breath that they’ll answer.
Jon Letman is a freelance journalist and photographer based on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Reprinted with permission from Foreign Policy In Focus.