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Why America is re-engaging with the Pacific

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Why America is re-engaging with the Pacific

Our strategic interests in the Pacific Basin are both historic and undeniable. Yet for many years they have been sorely neglected. Let us first look at what has brought us collectively to this point on the world time clock.

In 1776, the same year the U.S. Declaration of Independence from the British Crown was being signed in Philadelphia, Captain James Cook set out from England on a voyage that would take him to a group of islands in the North Pacific in January 1778. The archipelago we now know as Hawaii, he called the Sandwich Islands in honor of his patron, John Montague, the Earl of Sandwich. During the previous decade, Captain Cook had explored other regions of the South Pacific. On his third voyage to Hawaii on February 14, 1779, Cook met his demise.

Today the islands which still bear his name, the Cook Islands in the South Pacific with political ties to New Zealand, are seeking a new name. They want to stress their indigenous identity, not the legacy of colonialism.

Later it was the United States in the early 19th Century that set its colonial gaze upon Hawaii. Prim and proper New England missionaries sailed to these islands as did profit-minded businessmen. Near the end of that century, the Hawaiian monarchy was replaced by a short-lived Republic. Then came Hawaii territorial days until statehood in 1959.

Novelist and humorist Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who adopted a Mississippi River depth gauge term Mark Twain as his nom de plume, sailed to the Kingdom of Hawaii and spent four months here in 1866 as a correspondent of the Sacramento Union newspaper. Oahu, Maui and the Big Island of Hawaii totally enchanted him and left an impression that stayed in his heart and mind for the rest of his life, though he never was able to return.

When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked the U.S. Congress to declare war on the Empire of Japan after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he referred to December 7th, 1941 as the date that will live in infamy. While it awakened the sleeping giant, it is also a testament to lack of preparedness and an inability to read the warning signs of impending hostilities.

Both the 35th President of the United States John Kennedy and our 41st president George H.W. Bush fought in the Pacific Theater during World War II. But we will never again have the wisdom of a President who was a member of the greatest generation.

As a baby boomer myself, I grew up watching black-and-white newsreels before Saturday afternoon matinees of U.S. victories in Europe and the Pacific. Today we have Democrat presidential contenders who don’t even date back as far as the Vietnam War. Or even the taking of the American diplomats hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Each new generation must take heed of the lessons learned from their parents and grandparents. Otherwise we are doomed to repeat their mistakes or worse, and never attain their ultimate victories.

Pacific Islands played a very strategic role in Japan’s efforts to extend its empire throughout this entire region of the world. Battles were fought on Tarawa and Peleliu and Guadalcanal and Wake Island. All these places still exist, of course.

Tarawa is in the present day nation of of Kiribati. Peleliu is in the former U.S. territory and now independent nation of Palau. Guadalcanal is in the Solomon Islands. Wake Island is still a United States territory.

On my first overseas deployment in the U.S. Air Force in 1970, the contract flight I boarded at Travis Air Force Base in California en route to Clark Air Base, Philippines was scheduled after a brief stopover in Honolulu to refuel at Wake Island. But the pilot came on the loudspeaker and informed us that due to brisk tailwinds, we had overshot Wake and would stop instead at Andersen Air Force Base on the island of Guam.

Wake Island was also the site of a contentious meeting during the first Korean War between President Harry S. Truman and General Douglas MacArthur. I just referred to it as the first Korean War to remind you that we have only an armistice and not a peace treaty that led to a cessation of armed conflict six and a half decades ago. We don’t want a resumption of the Korean War in our own day and age. But now, as then, we must maintain the upper hand.

One other note about Wake Island ~ monitoring of open sources shortly after the 9/11/2001 terror attacks, there were indications that the United States was considering putting combatants captured abroad not only in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba but also potentially at Wake Island in the Pacific and/or Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Perhaps that never happened, but we may never know for sure.

Also, Palau where the World War II battle of Peleliu was fought, was used by President Barack Obama as a dumping ground for Uighur terrorists from Xinjiang Province in China which the Muslims residing there refer to as East Turkestan. Why POTUS 44 chose a former American territory, which we shall discuss more about shortly, for this is most likely attributable to a scarcity of other places that would accept them. Uighurs warrant a closer look at a later time.

Which brings us right into our discussion of the former U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI). In the 1980’s, the status of these Island groupings changed. Palau opted to become an independent nation under a Compact of Free Association (CFA) with the United States, as did the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Under provisions of the CFA, the U.S. Postal Service was to continue delivering their mail and security would continue to be provided by the U.S. military. Additionally, citizens of these CFA countries may reside in the United States permanently without a visa as long as they do not have a criminal conviction. Many now reside here in Hawaii and interestingly in such places as Springdale, Arkansas.

That was my concern about Obama putting the Uighurs in Palau, where they could potentially get a local to convert and become radicalized in Islam, and then come and stay in the United States without being vetted. The CFA countries have a special relationship with our own nation.

The United States also continues to have territories in Guam and American Samoa, plus the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) which opted for continued affiliation with this country. There are a number of other Islands in the Pacific that are U.S. possessions.

Wake Island is once again becoming a strategic locale for United States military purposes. Johnston Island which was once an important military installation is now virtually abandoned with chemical warfare agents allegedly stored there. Midway Island where the turning point battle of World War II was fought, is now mostly a Wildlife Refuge for albatross, also known as gooney birds. It has been visited by both the late Senator John McCain and former President Barack Obama.

There are also other uninhabited and minor outlying Islands and atolls in the Pacific that are under United States control. Palmyra. Kingman Reef. Howland Island. Baker, Jarvis, and so on.

It is no wonder that Americans who tend to be geographically illiterate are not familiar with the Pacific Basin. If you look at a satellite view on GPS or Google Earth, you mostly see a lot of deep blue which represents the water. The islands are just small specks of land that don’t show up from that aerial view.

Even some members of the United States Congress have difficulty formulating intelligent questions when they have an expert witness from the United States Navy. Congressman Hank Johnson of Georgia’s 4th District once said in a hearing about Guam, “My fear is that the whole island will become so overly populated that it will tip over and capsize.” No joke, folks. You can easily find the video of this on YouTube. Kudos to the Admiral who said with a straight face, “We don’t anticipate that.”

The Pacific Basin is comprised of three ethnic and cultural regions. Hawaii, French Polynesia, American Samoa and New Zealand are among the islands in Polynesia. The CFA Nations and U.S. territories of Guam and CNMI are in Micronesia. Melanesia includes the indigenous inhabitants of Australia, New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Fiji.

Polynesia denotes the many islands, Micronesia the small Islands and Melanesia the islands populated by dark-skinned indigenous people.

Generally an atoll consists of low-lying islets and coral reefs surrounding a central lagoon. Whereas, some islands in the Pacific have high mountains such as Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa on the big island of Hawaii which are both over 13,000 feet above sea level and Haleakala on Maui which is over 10,000 feet.

In addition to United States territories in the Pacific, France also has several possessions in the South Pacific. New Zealand and Australia have small islands there as well. In the Eastern Pacific is Rapa Nui or Easter Island which belongs to Chile. Then there are the Galapagos of Ecuador where Charles Darwin visited in 1835 developing his theory of evolution.

A complete description of the status of every group of islands in the Pacific is beyond our scope here. The ethno-cultural divisions and the political allegiances are what we are looking at now.

The Pacific Rim is a Ring of Fire. There are volcanoes and fault lines between the earth’s tectonic plates conducive to earthquakes that in turn can lead to Pacific-wide tsunamis. All in all, this is a very volatile region geologically as well as politically and militarily.

A primary concern among Pacific Rim countries at this point in time is the People’s Republic of China.

The Spratly Islands located off the west coast of the Philippines in the South China Sea / West Philippine Sea are claimed by a number of nations including the Philippines and China. Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also believe these islands belong to them.

Thitu Island, in the Spratlys, is also known as Pag-Asa Island, which ironically means Hope in Tagalog. It has been administered by the Philippines, but China has recently forcefully taken control. When U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Manila recently, he assured the Philippines that the United States has their back dealing with China. Let’s see if he meant it.

So, why are the Spratly Islands so important to China? Perhaps they will turn out to be mineral-rich. They are very strategically located well off-shore from China near a route through which much of the world’s maritime shipping must transit between the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean. China is also enhancing its military preparedness in Southeast Asia. To consider this as merely defensive rather than in the interest of hegemony against neighboring countries would be naïve.

One has to seriously wonder whether Donald Trump could walk up to a world map and put his finger on the Spratly Islands. It is more likely that his advisors such as Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton have succeeded in focusing attention on that potential flashpoint.

A paternalistic view of large powerful nations towards smaller weaker countries, and particularly vulnerable islands, is nothing new on the world scene, certainly not in the Pacific Theater. One can look at the history of colonialism in Asia. The Philippines were subjugated to Spain and the United States. Vietnam was a French colony. The Dutch East Indies is present-day Indonesia. The British were in Malaya, where there is now present-day Malaysia and Singapore. Hong Kong, of course, was also a British Crown Colony. Portugal was in Macau and East Timor. As mentioned above, there are still territories in the Pacific Basin.

Even as Beijing seeks to subjugate the government in Taipei as part of the Communist domain, China and Taiwan continue to compete for allegiances among the Pacific Island nations. Some have gone from one to the other.

New U.S. Ambassador in Canberra Arthur Culvahouse arrived this week for his new post and immediately ruffled Australian feathers by accusing China of payday diplomacy in the Pacific. “The money looks attractive and easy upfront, but you better read the fine print.” China invested a lot of money in building a super port in the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu which appeared to be more than was needed and could even accommodate Chinese warships who might pay a port call. Then when the host nation cannot pay the debt, the Chinese want to take control.

China has also made its presence known in the former U.S. territories in the Compact of Free Association. On January 2nd, 2019 the United States Coast Guard responded to a 308-foot Chinese fishing vessel which ran aground on the tiny, uninhabited Taka Atoll in the Marshall Islands. This is a little over 200 miles from the United States Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site at Kwajalein Atoll.

There is much more to be said about the smuggling threat of fishing vessels and yachts throughout the Pacific Basin. This can include not only contraband but also unvetted persons and virtually anything they choose to bring along on their mission. This will be another important topic in and of itself later.

Small Pacific island nations and territories are more concerned about economics and perceived climate change than they are about foreign security threats. In reality, they would probably not be a target anyway, but rather just a transit point.

However, by establishing contact and communication, the United States can often obtain crucial information not available through our own resources. The potential of a terrorist attack from the high seas has never been adequately addressed. But it needs to be. Soon.

Those who have never lived on an island that is too far away from contiguous territory to be reached by a bridge have never realized how self-contained life is. Honolulu on the island of Oahu has a population of close to a million people. Yet at some point, one does kind of feel like driving around in circles unless you pack a suitcase and board a flight to the neighbor Islands or the U.S. mainland or elsewhere. Hawaii is about five hours from either San Francisco or Los Angeles.

But we are America’s mid-Pacific Frontier and the gateway to and from Asia and the Pacific Basin. It does not appear that our current batch of elected officials at the federal, state and county levels fully appreciate the inherent opportunities. But there are positive signs of both civilian and military authorities starting to take due notice and pay proper attention to this region. This is far overdue.

The United States Department of the Interior through its Assistant Secretary for Insular Affairs is tasked with providing services to U.S. territories. Former Secretary Ryan Zinke took his job seriously. So does Assistant Secretary Doug Domenech. I haven’t heard anything about Acting Secretary David Bernhardt to date and had to Google his name.

The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, U.S. Pacific Fleet, U.S. 7th Fleet and Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam have all taken to providing the public with information via Twitter. Their proactive stance and their understanding that America needs to know our armed forces are engaged in precluding enemy intrusions is highly commendable. A reactive stance is never adequate. This is indicative that the lesson of December 7th, 1941 has indeed been learned and taken to heart. United States forces are being deployed around the Pacific as a deterrent to China or Russia or other adversaries.

In addition to our active duty and National Guard, defense contractors including Booz Allen Hamilton and the Rand Corporation are actively involved and working closely with our military decision makers in providing actionable timely intelligence information. BAH has analysts who work side-by-side with the Joint Interagency Task Force – West (JIATF-W) at Camp Smith, Hawaii. They also deploy to U.S. embassies in the Asia-Pacific. Rand Corporation in Santa Monica also provides analysis of national security and Indo-Pacific issues.

The Governor of Hawaii, the Mayor of Honolulu and all four of our Congressional Delegation in Washington, DC are all Democrats who seem to have a totally distorted orientation and focus.

A Hawaii Senator travels to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas to provide non-expert opinions of the situation there, but she doesn’t demonstrate any awareness of our concern about the threat environment much closer to home here in Hawaii.

A Congresswoman and Hawaii National Guard Officer campaigns for the Democrat nomination for President and Commander-in-Chief primarily on an anti-war platform.

They are not putting out information related to the serious concerns that we are outlining here. Hawaii is over 4,800 miles outside the DC Beltway. But the politicians we send to our nation’s capital seem to get caught up in the back east mentality.

I always get much better information from foreign open sources such as Radio New Zealand in social media than from any American mainstream media. Americans do tend to be extremely provincial and uninterested in what goes on beyond our borders.

Politics, both in our government and in our media, obscures any strategic vision for what lies ahead. That’s why we need objective new sources that will provide pertinent information without slanting it for political purposes.

Just as Japan sought and obtained military preeminence throughout Asia and the Pacific in the early 20th century, China is seeking hegemony over this entire part of the globe in the early 21st century. Hawaii is located in the North Pacific in a location which is very conducive to monitoring such activities.

We cannot afford to do the Neville Chamberlain maneuver and think that talk alone will cause enemies to cease their aggression. Rather, we must remember that peace is only attained and maintained through strength. Appeasement is invariably seen as a sign of weakness.

In our free society where regime change is accomplished only at the ballot box, inconsistency from one political administration to the next often results in chaos in foreign policy. Despite being born in Hawaii, Barack Obama’s heart never really seemed to be here in the Pacific. He liked taking vacations here, but never really engaged with our counterparts in this aquatic neighborhood.

Donald Trump does not demonstrate a personal interest in Hawaii and the Pacific but at least his advisers seem to be on the right track about the strategic importance of counteracting the Chinese threat before it can blossom into something more imminent. For a Commander-in-Chief, this is preferable.

The 2020 election of our next President and Commander-in-Chief will be the most important political decision of our lifetime. All the candidates need to be pinned down on where they stand on substantive national security issues.

China is not the only threat to inhabitants of Oceania. The Fiji Islands in the South Pacific a few years ago acknowledged that young Muslim males from their country were being recruited to study in Pakistani madrassas to train as jihadis. It has never been publicly established why at least two of the 9/11 hijackers had previously traveled to Fiji, with whom they met and what they did there.

A suspected terrorist from Seine-Saint-Denis in Paris traveled to Papeete, Tahiti in French Polynesia and attempted to establish a mosque a few years ago. This could have been a beachhead in the South Pacific. I refer to this as America’s backdoor when Persons of Interest arrive via the Pacific into Hawaii or the West Coast.

There are also important factors to be considered in the Pacific Basin such as the role of the International Dateline, but that is a complex issue to which I want to devote more time and attention. So we’ll save that for another article.

In the early days of space flight, astronauts in their capsules used to splashdown in the South Pacific because there was then, as there is now, a lot of open high seas and only small specks of land to avoid hitting.

I’ll leave you with the thought of Aviatrix Amelia Earhart who disappeared over vast expanses of the Pacific on an attempted solo flight around the world in 1937. Times, technology and transportation have changed, but the vast and remote distances that comprise the Pacific Basin remain a constant challenge.

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