USC Dornsife Scientific Diving: The International Policy Rationale for the Military Buildup on Guam and Some Environmental Drivers

by Robert English and Jim Haw

Originally published at ScientificAmerican.com

[At this writing, U.S. and Philippine forces are concluding their latest joint military exercise, a mock amphibious landing on Palawan Island.  The allies claim there is no direct link between their maneuvers and an incident earlier this month where Chinese military ships drove off Philippine coast guard vessels that were attempting to seize Chinese fishing boats in Philippine-claimed waters.  This also coincides with Palau’s release of 25 Chinese fishermen arrested in an earlier incident—one Chinese vessel was destroyed, and one fisherman killed—on the charge of illegal fishing in Palauan waters.  And it resembles several other recent Sino-Philippine and Sino-Vietnamese confrontations, including one last year where Chinese fishing boats were driven away by an armed Vietnamese oil-prospecting vessel.  Several days ago the U.S. and Japan finally agreed that 9,000 Marines will leave Okinawa, and 5,000 of these will relocate to Guam.  These recent events provide the immediate international relations context for the USC Dornsife Scientific Diving students three weeks before they travel to Micronesia.]

Si vis pacem, para bellum.  “If you want peace, prepare for war.” This classical dictum—that the best way to deter conflict is to be strong enough to win it—reflects the strategies of the main Western Pacific powers engaged in military build-ups whose collective impact prompts an equally classical rejoinder:  Si vis pacem, para pactum.  “If you want peace, work for agreement,” since the alternative is arms racing that heightens tensions and risk while leaving everyone in the same relative position, only bearing major economic, social, ecological, and other costs.  The U.S. territory of Guam is a prime exhibit of these often-ignored costs, an island jewel once again in the military and environmental crosshairs.

From the U.S. perspective, a longstanding regional balance is being upset by two principal threats:  the nuclear-weapon and ballistic-missile programs of an unremittingly hostile North Korea; and the seemingly relentless rise of China and its dramatic military build-up.  The former is certainly diplomatically vexing, but to some extent a more straightforward challenge since it is primarily military (though scenarios of North Korea lashing out, or collapsing in, are anything but simple) and neighboring states largely agree on the strategy, if not tactics, of countering it.  The latter challenge, China’s growing power and assertiveness, is in both its nature and implications considerably more complex.  For over a decade, China-watchers have been debating the implications of Beijing’s rise yet remain as far as ever from consensus.  Must China’s power be resolutely balanced, its military capabilities directly countered, if not to invite aggression?  Or should the response be more measured so as not to provoke an insecure Chinese leadership and instead focus on the moderating influence of expanded political, economic, and cultural intercourse?

The U.S., while continuing to emphasize political and trade agreements, has launched a major effort—a  “strategic pivot” toward Asia—to bolster its considerable military capabilities in the region.  China’s growing air and naval forces, and especially the increasing number, range, and accuracy of its missile force, are being countered by multiple means:  improved weapons systems, increased cooperation and training with regional allies, and new or expanded regional deployments and basing.  To see why this is so much more complex than the Korean threat—which mainly concerns Northeast Asia—one must consider the geographical complexity of the Western Pacific-Southeast Asia.  For it is not only the multifaceted nature of a rising China’s political, economic, and military challenge to the region.  It is the geographic complexity of that region itself—the South China Sea and its many surrounding states, their conflicting territorial claims, its resource wealth, and its critical importance to not only Asian but global commerce.

In American (and Philippine, Vietnamese, Malaysian, et al.) eyes, the crux of the problem is China’s claim to “undisputed sovereignty” over nearly the entire South China Sea basin—including the Spratly and Paracel Islands, as well as the waters above perhaps 200 billion barrels of oil and 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.  But that sovereignty is in fact vigorously disputed, which has led to some serious military clashes (especially with Vietnam) as well as multiple smaller confrontations (collisions at sea, threats to oil prospecting vessels, seizure of commercial shipping, etc.) with the Philippines, Indonesia, and others.  What no one disputes is the South China Sea’s vital economic importance.  Across its waters and through narrow passages such as the Straits of Malacca annually pass fully half of the world’s merchant tonnage, some $ 5 trillion in goods.  Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and China rely on tankers traversing the Sea for between 60 and 80 percent of their energy imports.

From Beijing’s perspective, their claim to the lion’s share of the South China Sea is historically justified and in any case “outside powers” such as the U.S. have no place interfering in disputes that they prefer to settle bilaterally.  But the smaller regional states cannot stand up to Beijing’s power alone, which is why they have turned to the U.S. for support, worried about unchecked Chinese “bullying” as Washington’s focus for the past decade has been on distant conflicts in the Middle East.  Hence the “strategic pivot” or return to the U.S.’ post-WWII role as guarantor of regional security which—to Chinese eyes—looks like renewed “neo-imperial” meddling in what they consider “their” sea, much as the U.S. has traditionally regarded the Caribbean as “its” sea.  Indeed, given its strategic importance, resource wealth, and political and environmental fragility, the South China Sea combines the most volatile aspects of the Caribbean and Caspian Seas.

To keep the sea-lanes open, check China’s advance, and preserve its own influence, the U.S. is expanding its already considerable presence and ”power projection” capabilities in the Western Pacific.  Large contingents of troops in Japan (30,000) and South Korea (28,000) will be buttressed by new facilities such as a naval base in Darwin, Australia, that will add another 2,500 U.S. marines to the nearly 22,000 already stationed in the Pacific (including Hawaii).  The U.S. Navy, adding the new and unproven Littoral Combat Ships to their fleet of submarines, destroyers, and aircraft carriers, will now find new (or expanded) welcome in the harbors of Singapore and the Philippines.  And the U.S. Air Force’s increasing numbers of regionally based fighter, bomber, and surveillance planes are joined by new Navy aircraft such as the anti-submarine warfare Poseidon P8-A and a naval version of the Global Hawk drone.

Geography demonstrates why the American Territory of Guam is the U.S.’ tip of the spear in the Western Pacific. Source Guam Military Buildup Draft EIS.

Part of the concern driving this buildup is China’s increasingly capable navy, now numbering 65 frigates, 62 submarines, 13 destroyers, with a modern aircraft carrier under construction.  The Chinese air force has grown apace, but perhaps most worrisome are the increasing numbers and sophistication of Beijing’s missile arsenal.  Taiwan has long been concerned about the hundreds of Chinese missiles aimed in their direction, mostly variants of the inaccurate (but deadly) Soviet-era SCUD.  But newer missiles such as the Dong Feng 16 (DF-16) feature increased accuracy and range, while the DF-21 poses a new threat conveyed in the sobriquet awarded it by the U.S. Navy—the “aircraft carrier killer.” Combined with the launch of many new low earth-orbit surveillance and targeting satellites, China’s long-range anti-ship and anti-ground missile capabilities now challenge U.S. superiority in the air and at sea.  For the first time since WWII, America’s ability to control the skies unhindered and project power rapidly will be at issue with these growing threats to air-base and carrier-group survivability.

It is against this background that Guam figures so prominently.   The U.S. Navy secured Guam as a territory of the United States in June 1898, when an arriving warship brought the news to the Spanish Governor of both the outbreak of the Spanish-American war and his instantaneous if bloodless defeat.  Over the next four decades the Navy continually made plans to transform Guam into a key base in the western Pacific, but funding from Congress proved elusive.  In the run up to Japanese aggression against the United States, the Navy agonized over the vulnerability of marines and sailors on Guam but made few actual preparations.  In the hours following Pearl Harbor vastly superior Imperial Japanese forces on Saipan (the Northern Marianas Islands having been sold to Germany by Spain in 1899 and then seized by Japan at the outbreak of WWI) rapidly conquered Guam.

Areas of current or potential military installations on Guam. Source Guam Military Buildup Draft EIS.

Two-and-a-half years of brutal occupation followed until U.S. forces blasted their way back onto Guam and the northern Marianas as well.  Guam, Saipan, and Tinian became the airbases for the mass B-29 strikes on the Japanese mainland as well as two atomic bomb missions.  WWII was won, Guam was devastated then rebuilt, and the U.S. belatedly granted the native Chamorros of Guam citizenship in 1950.  The Northern Marianas eventually become a U.S. Commonwealth with their own constitution, but Guam persists, in the words of the United Nations, as a “non-decolonized territory”, along with two other U.S. territories (American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands), the Falkland Islands, Pitcairn Island, Gibraltar, and seven or eight other vestiges of the age of empires.

The strategic value of Guam has always included prominently one of the finest deep-water ports in the Western Pacific.  The Navy substantially improved Apra Harbor around the end of WWII, and it is already the base for forward deployment of three Los Angeles class nuclear attack submarines, a submarine tender, various naval air units and substantial munitions and communications assets.  The value of Guam for advanced deployment of attack submarines was laid out in a 2003 Congressional Budget Office Report.  Because of the past boom-bust cycle of commissionings, attack submarines built in the 1980s and 1990s are facing retirement over the next decade, and completions of their Virginia-class replacements, beginning in 2003, are not keeping up with need.  Since a typical deployment is few months, patrol time in the South China Sea or off of Korea is severely diminished by transiting from San Diego or even Pearl Harbor.  Furthermore, the reactors of the newer class are designed for the expected total lifetime of the vessel, and burning through the reactor on transiting versus patrol is inefficient use of very expensive assets.  Forward deployment of additional submarines to Guam would seem to be inevitable.

Advanced-deployed Los Angeles class attack submarine leaving Apra Harbor, Guam for patrol in the Western Pacific. (Photo by David Ginsburg)

Similar logic argues for advanced deployment of U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, all of which are also nuclear powered.   For sometime the Navy has operated one carrier out of Yokohama Japan, and has additionally experimented with transient berthing of a second carrier at a munitions wharf in the outer part of Apra Harbor.  In what could be a transition to a second advanced-deployed carrier in the Western Pacific, the Navy wants to dredge 71 acres of coral reef nearer the inner harbor to more favorably support berthing a carrier on Guam on a part-time basis without interference with munitions ships.  It is possible that other near-by reefs such as Western Shoals might be damaged by sediment or debris from the proposed dredging operation.

Furthermore, DoD is looking to Guam to solve a long-standing diplomatic problem with Japan.  U.S. forces occupied Okinawa in the closing months of WWII and have never left.  Several PR disasters including rapes of children by US Marines coupled with sensitivity over land use and a never-ending foreign military presence require at least some U.S. forces be moved out of Okinawa and perhaps a base closure.  Already some Marines are to be transferred to Australia, but a controversial plan to relocate many of them to Guam seems to be going forward but with only about 5,000 uniformed personnel, just over half the original plan.

Detail of proposed coral reef dredging for aircraft berthing in Apra Harbor. Source: Guam Military Buildup Draft EIS.

The value of 5,000 Marines and an increased naval presence on Guam as preparation for or deterrence against a full-scale, intense land war in Asia should be measured against the magnitude of the assumed threat.  Three scenarios come to mind as examples: a second Korean war, a military conquest (forced reunification) of Taiwan by China, and resource competition in the South China Sea resulting in military conflict between a number of nations, including China. Our best model for such a conflict is the 1950-1953 Korean War (which technically never ended as it was resolved by an Armistice but not a Peace Treaty).  Ultimately the U.S., South Korea and allied nations committed nearly one million combatants; North Korea committed a quarter million, and China nearly one million (the Soviet Union also provided aircraft and pilots for combat missions).  U.S. and allied forces attained air superiority if not air supremacy after a few months, and neither North Korea nor China had nuclear weapons or much in the way of a navy, yet the U.S. alone suffered 130,000 killed, wounded or missing.  An intense conflict in the Western Pacific a decade or two from now would feature a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy with entirely competent blue water and littoral capabilities, with air support from both carriers and airfields on their own shores.  If U.S. ground troops became engaged in combat on the Asian mainland they would potentially face the largest standing army in the world.

Thus, while we agree that Guam is indeed the tip of the spear, the only U.S. soil suitable for a military base in the Western Pacific, the addition of a few thousand Marines, a few submarines and eventually one aircraft carrier is grossly inadequate to the threats that are invoked to justify the buildup in the first place.  In that case, the environmental, social, cultural and simply economic costs of the buildup, which might look acceptable on the basis of geography alone (e.g., Figure 1) should be re-evaluated if the magnitude of the buildup is not likely to contribute to any of the putative strategic outcomes.  One document that should be of enormous value to lawmakers as well as policy experts is the DoD Master Plan for the Pacific realignment of forces.  This document is long overdue and DoD foot-dragging on its release has cost support in the U.S. Senate.  DoD is apparently seeking an independent study of U.S. security interests, force posture and deployment plans in East Asia and the Pacific.  Release of the Master Plan and as well as a comprehensive and independent review of military planning in the region is urgently needed to protect U.S. strategic interests and provide for an accurate balancing of strategic interests with economic, social and environmental costs.

Traditional security thinking largely neglects the latter.  Even as some academic and policy experts have come to embrace non-traditional approaches—e.g., human security, economic or environmental security—governments still overwhelmingly emphasize military security.  It’s time that we understood how closely these various approaches, and their respective concerns, are connected.  Consider Chinese incursions into the waters claimed by neighboring states, sometimes by military ships but as often oil-exploration or fishing vessels.  China is basically serving notice, asserting an offensive territorial claim to the entire China Sea basin—right?  Well, consider the defensive argument of the RAND Corporation’s Scott Harold:  “Fishing stocks in [China’s] coastal waters have been depleted, which is why you’re seeing Chinese fishermen ranging farther afield into waters claimed by South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines.” As China struggles to feed some 1.3 billion mouths, the nearby waters of the East China Sea have been severely depleted and even more severely degraded by a variety of pollutants:  inorganic nitrogen and phosphates, oil hydrocarbons, sewage and other organic matter, and heavy metals — in short, the usual agricultural and industrial wastes.

To a considerable extent, then, China’s military-territorial assertion is also motivated by economic necessity born of environmental degradation, which in turn provokes a military response in locales as distant as Guam that are themselves threatened by environmental degradation as a consequence. What better illustration could there be of the growing interdependence among military, economic, and environmental security?  Until this interdependence is taken seriously by policy-makers on all sides, the old strategic instability caused by action-reaction arms racing will only be compounded by new economic and environmental instability of perhaps even graver long-term consequence.

Photo of authors Rob English (right) and Jim Haw by Lisa Collins.

About the Authors:

Robert English is Deputy Director of the School of International Relations at Dornsife College, University of Southern California.  Educated at Berkeley and Princeton, he is a specialist in Russian politics and post-Soviet international relations.  He previously taught at Johns Hopkins University (School of Advanced International Studies) and also worked as a policy analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (1982-1986) and the Committee for National Security (1986-1987).

Jim Haw is Director of the Environmental Studies Program at Dornsife College, University of Southern California and Irani Professor of Chemistry.  He is co-instructor of the Guam and Palau Program, which for the third consecutive year will be taking a group of scientific diving students to Micronesia to study a complex set of problems including the interplay between a military build-up and ecosystem management.

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Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. This course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam and Palau in Micronesia.

Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Environmental Studies Lecturer Dave Ginsburg, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies

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