Geopolitics In The Western Pacific – Past & Present
(1)Even aside from the people who live on them, islands have always held some mystical appeal to romanticists and adventurers. But their real appeal in the past has been to military planners and political strategists, although for far different reasons. Long before the flames of World War II engulfed the world, the use of a nation's resources was directly affected by its trading opportunities.
With few exceptions among the great trading nations of the world, the full benefit of possessing exploitable resources or colonies only came with transport across the oceans. Sea routes are valuable national assets and the power to control or influence these traffic lanes is a matter of importance to all nations which border the sea.
The ocean, and today the air, are avenues of commerce — lifelines to carry a nation's industrial blood, whether it be raw materials or its processed products to world markets. It was opportunities for commerce that first opened the vast expanse of the Pacific. Later sea power was brought to bear to protect these trade routes. But since all navies depend upon bases of fixed facilities for replenishing, repairing and refueling their vessels, the islands in the Pacific have always played a major role.
To keep such bases operational a navy must strive defensively to maintain control of those sea lanes leading to its base of operations and keep them open. To wage offensive warfare a navy must have sufficient power to close off the trade routes of any adversary. These units must have a secure base preferably near or within the sea lanes they are to protect. Before the Second World War both the United States and the Japanese appreciated this concept very well. It is because of geography that the Pacific Islands have always figured prominently and importantly in the affairs of western hemispheric nations in a measure far beyond their size and resources would seem to warrant. It is frequently because of an isolated but strategic location that some islands are considered to be of military and political importance far in excess of their economic value. Indeed, those islands situated relatively near the coastline of continents make ideal bases for extending the national will of one country over another.
Rarely do such islands owe any allegiance to the country which controls the nearby mainland. Guam is a classic example. Not only is it relatively near the Asian continent but from the time the Japanese moved in to control the Nanyo (Mandated Islands) it was an American enclave within a Japanese military and economic sphere — a virtual thorn in the side of the Japanese military planners. Islands most prized by the military are frequently those which can provide a navy with a protected deep water anchorage and have defensible terrain overlooking the harbor. In former times islands served as coaling stations, relay stations for transoceanic cables, locations for radio transmitters, etc. Today they are sites for radar, earth satellite communication systems and fueling stops for the jet "clippers" of the skies, which more often than not land on air strips which were first constructed to service the military. Extreme geographic, cultural, historical, economic and political contrasts face each other across the Pacific Ocean.
The oldest civilization on earth faces the youngest. The most overpopulated continent lies opposite the most sparsely populated. The richest country is in stark contrast with some of the poorest. The most modernized and industrially advanced nation faces the most technologically backward. The nation with the highest standard of living stands in contrast to a continent with the lowest. But this is changing rapidly. The Pacific is the ocean where east meets west — ancient civilizations with cultural and ancestral stability and with reverence for the past are juxtaposed with the restlessness of the West and its obsession with the future.
So it was in the early forties and so it remains today. As the strategy of the Pacific is examined it becomes abundantly clear why Guam, Saipan and Tinian are so important to the United States. Before the war the Japanese developed the economies of the mandated islands to the extent possible. By contrast, the United States did not – electing instead to wait until the Micronesians themselves were the "rulers of their own house." America adopted a policy of providing funds for public works projects which ironically, to date, benefit Japanese investors and at some future date possibly the U. S. military.
Curiously, for a long period of time the islands were not administered by the U. S. Department of State which carries out America's foreign policy since to do so would be tantamount to admitting they were "foreign." Instead, the newly "associated" Pacific islands were, for a period, administered by the Department of the Interior's Office of Territorial and International Affairs (2) where many United States' domestic policies and programs could be applied regardless of whether they were appropriate for Pacific societies and, indeed, many were not – but others were quite beneficial. After the United States closed it bases in the Philippines, the Mariana Islands of Guam, Tinian and Saipan also experienced a reduced importance to American strategic requirements in the western Pacific. However, It is because of their geographic location in proximity to the Asian Continent as well as the Great Circle Sailing Routes (shortest distance) between the United States and the Philippines, the Strait of Malacca at Singapore and the Lombok Straits in Indonesia that the United States is expected to continue to exhibit interest, albeit at a reduced level, in the area far into the twenty-first century. The Malacca and Lombok Straits are the passages through which super tankers and their vital cargo of oil from the Middle East must travel enroute to the United States west coast and the ports of its Japanese ally and trading partner.
The Mariana Islands are geographically situated so as to be the farthest United States possessions in the Pacific west of Hawaii. Situated in a universe of water, the Marianas archipelago are the farthest stars out in the American galaxy. As a contingency the United States military has leased a portion of Tinian (originally 17,799 acres of which 12,000 acres have been leased back to the CNMI ). Several U.S. military supply vessels are already based in Commonwealth waters. However, the islands may have lost much of their strategic appeal as geographic assets. Not only is the land area available for military use limited, but a diminished threat from the former Soviet Union (now the Commonwealth of Independent States) and the modern technology of weapon systems has certainly reduced the strategic importance of the islands. At the end of World War Two and during – and after – the Korean conflict and the Vietnam War, the United States was preoccupied in southeast and northeast Asia with a policy designed to contain the Soviet Union and communism. Japan was ideally situated geographically to facilitate the effort with the result that the United States greatly assisted in the economic recovery of its former adversary after the devastation of the Pacific war with the result that, within the span of less that four decades, Japan became one of the strongest economies in the world. After World War Two and the emergence of the Soviet Union on the world economic scene along with the threat of communism, the United States, in an attempt to offer the developing nations of the world an alternative to this economic philosophy, opened its vast markets to industries in Asia.
This was an "economic carrot" offered as a alternative to communism and to aid in building an alliance against the Soviet Union. In so doing some of the United States’ domestic industries started their long decline. Who, for example in 1950, could possibly imagine that American automobile manufacturers would lose out on their own home territory. But this is what has happened along with steel, shipbuilding, electronics and a myriad of other industries.
If it continues one must wonder what the American worker will produce in the year 2000 to earn the money to continue to represent a substantial export market for the growing quantity of Asian manufactured items of high quality. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the current strong economies of Korea, Taiwan, Japan and others the United States no longer seems to have to offer the "carrot" of free market access or low tariffs on the American side of the Pacific. With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, America finds itself with no real military threat in the western Pacific and Japan's geographic location no longer as important in containing Soviet expansion in east Asia. This was the principal reason for United States reconstructing Japan's economy after World War Two – to make the nation a bulwark against communism. With the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union the United States is left without a military challenge in the region but finds itself faced with an economic threat from Japan, a country which is very weak militarily but one of the most wealthy nations in the world.This is a nation consisting of a group of small, crowded islands in comparison to the entire American continent and, in contrast to North America, a country totally dependent upon overseas trade to sustain its economy. Geopolitics in the western Pacific will continue to be influenced by the United States with Japan becoming an increasingly major player.
With the second largest economy in the world, Japan must import all its raw material and export its finished manufactured goods to markets throughout the world. The highways for this commerce are the sea lanes of all the world's oceans. For this purpose Japan needs guaranteed and secure ocean trade routes – security which the U. S. has provided since the end of the war. Japan must eventually come to realize that it must contribute to the security of these sea lanes as well as its overseas investments and must therefore become a military and political power to balance its wealth and economic position in the world.
This could be viewed with alarm by the United States as a future threat in the Pacific and elsewhere unless the two giants form an economic and military union, the like of which has never before been witnessed in the world. (1) Publisher's note: Portions of this section were taken from the author's book, “ Ghost Fleet of the Truk Lagoon.” (2) Recently an Office Of Freely Associated States was established within the U. S. Department of State.