Kwajalein Atoll. Guam. Saipan.
These names are familiar as critical battlefields in World War II which helped turn the tide of the war and ensure American victory in the Pacific. Although much of American strategic focus in the Pacific focuses on China, North Korea, Continental Asia, and the “first island chain” comprising of Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines, the geostrategic importance of strengthening and maintaining American power in the far-off atolls and islands of the South Pacific must not be forgotten.
On the campaign trail, President Trump often stated that he was committed to expanding the size of the U.S. Navy and restoring American military power should he be elected president.
With the growing threat of long-range ballistic missile launches from North Korea, intelligence reports that Pyongyang has miniaturized a nuclear weapon, and concerns about China’s continued push to expand its naval capacity while waging a war of influence across the Pacific, a new front has opened up in the Pacific’s strategic framework: the South Pacific.
In order to ensure that the U.S. maintains its position as the pre-eminent Pacific superpower and maintains its ability to defend its island territories and the West Coast, Mr. Trump should consider targeted strategic investment in the region. By considering these three actions, the administration can ensure America’s positioning in the region remains strong:
• Continue to modernize and consider expanding the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll.
• Invest in more defense capabilities in U.S. Pacific territories and partner states.
• Consider re-establishing a U.S. Navy presence on American Samoa for the first time since the closure of U.S. Navy Station Tutila in 1951.
As recent missile defense tests have shown, the Reagan Missile Defense Site is able to counter various ICBM threats to the United States, but as North Korea continues to expand its capabilities and develop new technology, the U.S. must show that its ability to intercept missiles in the Pacific is unquestionable.
Evaluating, modernizing, and expanding U.S. missile infrastructure across the Pacific at sites like those like the Reagan Missile Defense Site is a way for the administration to show its commitment to Pacific preeminence and expanding U.S. military scope in the Pacific.
Such investment should not be limited to missile defense.
Washington’s strategic investment should include ways in which the military can strengthen its positions in U.S. territories such as Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands while also deepening partnerships that it has with island nations such as Palau and the Marshall Islands.
As some of U.S. Forces Japan begin a transition from Okinawa to Guam in the coming years, the U.S. military should consider evaluating infrastructure on Guam as another way to expand its Pacific infrastructure. A good way to do this would be to invite Japanese forces to the island in a way to expand growing goodwill between the U.S. military and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces.
At the same time, cooperation on Guam would provide a new venue for deeper training exercises and bilateral cooperation at a time when Japan looks to expand its defense role in conjunction with the United States.
While not incorporated as a part of the United States, island nations such as Palau, the Marshall Islands, and Micronesia are in Compacts of Free Association with the U.S. Under this agreement, the U.S. provides financial assistance and defense to these nations as a part of the Office of Insular Affairs.
Strategic investment in existing defense infrastructure is in line with current Department of Defense policy and is another way in which Mr. Trump can expand the purview of the U.S. military in the Pacific to counter emerging challenges while also building goodwill across the region as China expands its foreign direct investment.
Yet another way to address American interests in the South Pacific is by re-establishing a U.S. Navy installation at American Samoa. Vice President Pence’s visit to the island territory in April following his successful Asia tour underscores the important strategic role that American Samoa can play in U.S. Asia policy.
As China continues its military expansion and modernization and as President Trump seeks to expand the capabilities of the U.S. Navy to restore traditional American strategic power, the South Pacific will only continue to grow in strategic importance. Overlooked as part of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia, strengthening U.S. presence in American Samoa would be a strong message that Washington is committed to an effective transfer of its naval resources to the Pacific.
Small and targeted strategic investment in the South Pacific will not only show the U.S. commitment to its strategic value, it will ensure that the U.S. is prepared to deal with current and emerging threats across the broader Asia-Pacific region.
• Erik M. Jacobs is a student at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. This article first published in The Washington Times Commentary section on Aug. 10, 2017.
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