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Reinforcing Washington's Asia-Pacific Hegemony

A year ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signaled a major transformation in U.S. foreign policy in an article titled “America’s Pacific Century,” which announced the U.S. “pivot” toward Asia, the Pacific, and the strategically important Indian Ocean. “One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade,” she wrote, will be “to lock in a substantially increased investment — diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise— in the Asia-Pacific region.” The increased engagement, she wrote, would be underwritten in part by “forging a broad-based military presence.”

Shortly thereafter, the Pentagon published its new “strategic guidance” paper, which, signaling at a shift away from Iraq and Central Asia, named the Asia-Pacific region and the Persian Gulf as the nation’s two geostrategic priorities. To emphasize the new commitments, Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and President Barack Obama made high-profile visits to allied Asian and Pacific nations. Republicans, in Mitt Romney’s foreign policy white paper, upped the ante, insisting that the United States “expand its naval presence in the Western Pacific” and pressure its allies to “maintain appropriate military capabilities.”

The Continuing Pursuit of Asia-Pacific Hegemony

The pivot is best understood as an extension of a century and a half of U.S. foreign and military policies. In the 1850s, U.S. Secretary of State William Seward argued that if the United States were to replace Britain as the world’s dominant power, it would first have to dominate Asia – hence the purchase of Alaska, the northern route to Asia. By the 1890s, Washington had finally assembled the navy needed to challenge Britain’s mastery of the seas. Meanwhile, amidst an economic depression and related domestic turmoil, policymakers saw access to the Chinese market as a way to put the unemployed to work while increasing corporate profits and establishing the United States as a global power. The turn-of-the-century sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor provided an excuse for the United States to declare war on Spain, seize the Philippines and Guam (as well as Puerto Rico and Cuba), and annex Hawaii to secure the refueling stations needed to reach China.

After Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, the Pacific became an “American Lake.” Hundreds of new U.S. military bases were established in Japan, Korea, Australia, the Marshall Islands, and other Pacific nations to reinforce those in the Philippines, Guam, and Hawaii, which were greatly expanded. Together these bases “contained” Beijing and Moscow throughout the Cold War, serving as launching pads for the Korean and Vietnam wars as well as for military interventions and political subversion from the Philippines and Indonesia to the Persian Gulf.

In the late 1990s, when China was first seen a potential strategic competitor for Asia-Pacific hegemony, the Clinton administration adopted a two-track policy of engagement and containment. Deng Xiaoping was welcomed to Disneyland, President Clinton was welcomed in Beijing, and China was given the green light to join the World Trade Organization. Meanwhile, the U.S.-Japan military alliance, which has long functioned as the NATO equivalent in East Asia, was reinforced. The Clinton administration sent nuclear-capable aircraft carriers through the Taiwan Strait and accelerated missile defense deployments designed to neutralize China’s missile capabilities. Before they were sidetracked by the “war on terror,” President George W. Bush and company promised to “diversify” U.S. Asia-Pacific military bases, reducing their concentration in Northeast Asia in order to distribute them more widely along China’s periphery.

Although the Bush administration extended the “war on terror” to Indonesia, the Philippines, and southern Thailand, it otherwise largely neglected Asia and the Pacific. This opened the way for growing Chinese influence, deepening the integration of ASEAN nations into China’s surging economic orbit. With the pivot, the Obama administration has signaled its determination, according to the Guardian’s Simon Tidal, “to beat back any Chinese bid for hegemony in the Asia-Pacific,” even at the expense of a new Cold War. As General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it, “the U.S. military may be obliged to overtly confront China just as it faced down the Soviet Union.”

The New Cold War and Its Footprint

Joseph Nye, Bill Clinton’s Deputy Secretary of Defense and a primary author of U.S. Asia-Pacific policy, previewed the pivot’s intellectual foundations in a piece for the New York Times. He warned of the potential dangers of rivalry between rising and declining powers. Twice during the 20th century, Nye noted, the United States and Britain failed to integrate Germany and Japan into their world order, resulting in two catastrophic world wars. To avoid an apocalyptic repeat of history, he urged the United States to simultaneously engage and contain China. Months before the “pivot” was launched, in words reminiscent of the 1890s, Nye wrote that “Asia will return to its historic status, with more than half of the world’s population and half of the world’s economic output. America must be present there. Markets and economic power rest on political frameworks, and American military power provides that framework” (emphasis added).

Now, even as the Obama administration repeats that “a thriving China is good for America” and pursues engagement via various diplomatic channels, it is hedging its bets.

Military alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand, which serve as “the fulcrum for our strategic turn to the Asia-Pacific,” are being revitalized. Having adopted an air-sea battle doctrine, the Pentagon has committed to deploying 60 percent of its nuclear-armed and high-tech navy to the Asia-Pacific. According to the New York Times, this includes “six aircraft carriers and a majority of the Navy’s cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships and submarines, [and] an accelerated pace of naval exercises and port calls in the Pacific.” 

Recognizing that relying on military power alone is not a winning strategy, especially given the near-equal influence of economic power, the Obama administration has also pressed a diplomatic campaign to negotiate a “Trans-Pacific Partnership.” The goal is to create the world’s largest and most demanding free-trade area in ways that deepen the economic integration of the U.S. and its Asia-Pacific allies while simultaneously reducing their economic dependence on China.

The expansion has come at a price for the region’s people.

In Japan it means reaffirming the nuclear alliance, despite President Obama’s ostensible commitment to creating a nuclear-weapons-free world. It also means amplified efforts to pacify Okinawan resistance to decades of U.S. military colonization, the continued and dangerous basing of the nuclear-capable USS George Washington aircraft carrier in Tokyo Bay, the deployment of accident-prone Osprey aircraft in the urban Futenma base in Okinawa, accelerated missile defense deployments, and expanded joint intelligence operations targeting China and North Korea.

In South Korea, where the U.S. military continues to have authority over all South Korean military operations in wartime, joint military exercises have been expanded — including in the Yellow Sea, where in defiance of Chinese warnings, the United States recently deployed the George Washington. To take the naval challenge closer to the Chinese coast, a massive Korean naval base is being built at a World Heritage site in Jeju Island’s Gangjeon village, which according to Yonhap News will “accommodate submarines and up to 20 warships, including U.S. Aegis-equipped destroyers and their missile defense systems.” This has sparked intense and disciplined nonviolent resistance in Korea. 

In Southeast Asia, the Obama administration upped the military ante by responding to China’s increasingly militarized claims to nearly all of the mineral-rich South China Sea—through which 40 percent of the world’s commerce passes—by declaring (U.S.-policed) free navigation of the seas a U.S. strategic priority. Reinforcing Philippine claims to the “West Philippine Sea,” the Pentagon has also increased weapons sales to the Philippines, accelerated joint military exercises, and explored the return of military bases. The pivot also entails strengthening the U.S. military’s relationships with Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam, with the latter engaging in joint military exercises and under its “friends with all nations” policies, providing access for U.S. and allied navies at Cam Rahn Bay. Washington’s renewed ties and military-to-military contacts with Burma, which could restrict China’s access to the Indian Ocean, have also raised serious concerns in Beijing.

To complete China’s encirclement, the Obama administration has established a new Indian Ocean base in Darwin, Australia, pursued a tacit alliance with India, and is expanding its “partnerships” with New Zealand and Mongolia. In April, the United States even won an agreement to keep a yet-to-be-determined number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan through 2024. Closer to home, Hawaii is to host nearly 3,000 more Marines, Osprey warplanes, and further base expansions.

Meanwhile the Chamorro people of Guam, whose tiny island nation’s strategic location makes it an ideal fallback site for the day when U.S. troops are finally ejected from Japan, are bearing the brunt of the pivot. Even though U.S. bases already occupy 28 percent of the 500-square-mile island, 3,000 more U.S. Marines and their families are scheduled to be redeployed to Guam from Okinawa, and there are plans for massive expansions of existing bases.

In an August 2012 speech in Japan, Cara Flores-Mays of Guam explained what the pivot will mean for her Chamorro grandfather: “He has not known freedom,” she said, “and it’s likely that he never will.” The same applies to the peoples of many other Asia-Pacific nations, who have largely been shunted aside in the great-power calculus governing U.S. policy in the region.

The Peace Movement’s Pivot

The United States and China, joined by other Asian and Pacific nations, are now engaged in a dangerous, expensive arms race reminiscent of the Cold War.

When great powers compete, the peoples and interests of smaller nations are often sacrificed. Caught between China’s rising influence and the U.S. pivot, the people of “host” nations and communities are paying the greatest price. Over two centuries ago, the authors of the U.S. Declaration of Independence identified the peacetime presence of British troops in their communities as the source of “abuses and usurpations” necessitating rebellion. Now it is the peoples of the Pacific and Asia who are suffering and increasingly resisting the impacts of the pivot, be they land seizures, harassment by U.S. soldiers, terrorizing low-altitude flight exercises, assaults on the environment, distorted national budgets, or the increased dangers of catastrophic warfare.

If catastrophic wars are to be prevented and limited national resources devoted to ensuring genuine economic and environmental security, the U.S. peace movement must begin challenging the pivot and its consequences. Already, there are indications that the movement’s own “pivot” has begun.

Among the most encouraging indications are the solidarity actions in support of anti-bases forces in Okinawa and Korea and the creation of the Working Group for Peace and Demilitarization in Asia. 

Okinawa has served as a U.S. military colony since its conquest in 1945, with massive U.S. Marine, Air Force, Navy, and Army bases continuing to occupy more than a quarter of its land area. Since the 1995 kidnapping and rape of a 12-year-old school girl by three U.S. Marines sparked a mass movement that shook the U.S.-Japan alliance to its core, the centerpiece of Washington’s and Tokyo’s campaign to pacify Okinawan resistance has been the agreement to relocate the dangerous Futenma Marine air base, located adjacent to schools and people’s homes, from the center of Ginowan City to Henoko, a small community in a more remote part of the island. Sit-ins led by octogenarians at the proposed construction site to prevent the corruption of their community and destruction of a vital reef and the sea life it supports sparked a movement that has transformed Okinawan politics. Instead of settling for the closure of Futenma at the expense of the people of Henoko, Okinawans have demonstrated, gone to court, sent delegations around the world, and elected political leaders who refused to sacrifice either Ginowan City or Henoko and — won the withdrawal of half of the 16,000 Marines based in Okinawa (albeit to Australia, Guam, and Hawaii). 

A similar struggle, led by farmers and environmentalists, is being waged on Jeju Island in Korea. There, on a UNESCO World Heritage site 300 miles from the Chinese coast, the U.S.-supported South Korean government has begun building an ostensibly Korean naval base that will be home to U.S.-made Aegis destroyers and missile defenses. The construction is destroying a sacred rock formation and reefs and preventing fishermen from earning their livelihood. The military housing that will follow will overwhelm farmers and villagers. For the past five years, activists have resisted with an imaginative, militant, and disciplined campaign of nonviolence that has made the Jeju struggle a national and international issue. There have been near-daily arrests as villagers and other base opponents block construction vehicles, squat on land seized to build the base, and cut through barbed wire barriers. Farmers and religious leaders have won hearts and minds with fasts, a painful campaign to make a thousand bows a day, and the profound form of Korean protest of publicly shaving their heads.

Although the U.S. peace movement largely turned away from East Asia in the aftermath of the VietnamWar, several U.S. peace organizations and a handful of dedicated activists have acted in solidarity with Asian and Pacific peace and justice movements. But with the Obama administration’s pivot now in full swing, the movement as a whole must challenge Washington’s increasingly militarized and dangerous campaign to reinforce its regional hegemony. Even as it works to prevent a war with Iran, bring all U.S. troops home from Afghanistan, and move money from the Pentagon to fund human needs and job creation, the U.S. peace movement has a responsibility to turn U.S. Asia-Pacific policy away from its militarized course and toward peaceful common and human security.

One promising incipient network is the newly created Working Group for Peace and Demilitarization in Asia and the Pacific. Growing out of a series of conferences and exchanges initiated by the American Friends Service Committee, the Working Group brings together figures from the traditional peace movement, Asian-American activists, the religious community, and scholars. It has begun to provide the analytical foundations for a broader movement. It has won endorsements from partner organizations across Asia and the Pacific to use the framework of 2013 as “The Year of Asia-Pacific Peace and Demilitarization” to build our movements.

The pivot and the resulting new Cold War are undermining the real needs of Americans and Asians alike. But another world is possible.

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