Quartz, the online media site aimed at a millennial audience, reported on June 22 that Ding Yihui of the Chinese Academy of Engineering had told the People’s Daily that China’s island building effort in the international waters of the South China Sea several hundred miles south of the mainland is intended for “enhancing and improving marine meteorological monitoring, warning, forecasting, prediction, and scientific research.” This, of course, is nonsense. China recently placed motorized artillery on one of its newly created artificial islands. No one needs a 35-ton self-propelled 155mm howitzer to defend weather forecasters.
China’s deliberately hostile actions in the West Pacific’s international waters are strategic. If successful, Beijing’s claims based on dubious readings of law, establishment of air defense zones, naval confrontations with neighbors, and now island-building will allow China to control the international waters up to and beyond the first chain of islands that separate the East Asian mainland from the open Pacific. These are the islands that matter.
The little specks that China is creating in the South China Sea are political stepping stones to strategic dominance over the South China and adjacent seas. Establishing such control would greatly complicate the U.S.’s ability to honor its obligations to defend the ocean-encircled or coastal states of Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines and South Korea. Dominance in the Yellow, South, and East China Seas would also establish Chinese hegemony over Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam, none of which will welcome it.
China, like most states, prefers to accomplish its objectives without fighting. But if accident, miscalculation or calculation lead to war, American bases in the region would be as important to victory as they are in reminding Beijing in peacetime that military confrontation with the U.S. is not in their interest.
Vladimir Putin knows this. In an article that appeared on 8 June he urged the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera “to publish a world map and mark all the U.S. military bases on it.” Putin is right that the U.S. still has a useful global network of support. He is wrong to compare the beneficent purpose of this network with Russia’s increasing aggressiveness. Chinese leaders’ attempt to separate the U.S. from its East Asian allies along with American or jointly operated bases in the region show that they too understand the link between power and the bases that support it.
Besides nodules that are located in Japan, South Korea, Australia and Singapore, the Mariana Islands (the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands) are an indispensable element of the network on which U.S. military influence in the oceanic theater of the West Pacific rests. They provide sea and air forces’ command and control facilities, airfields and harbors, ammunition and fuel storage, and offer maintenance, support and repair functions, including essential services for Navy submarines and the Coast Guard in the West Pacific.
The Marianas became a geographic hinge in World War II because they sit far enough East in the Pacific to have been useful if the Imperial High Command had decided to attack Hawaii, yet close enough to Japan for U.S. forces to launch strikes against Japanese targets in Southeast Asia and Japan itself — as indeed U.S. forces did. Today, possession of the Marianas would be as critical to Chinese ambitions for extending its influence into the Pacific as they are to America’s interest in contesting it.
As China, Russia, Iran and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria become more assertive, U.S. combatant commanders’ request for greater forward presence is answered in part by assigning more ships to bases that are closer to global hotspots. From 2006 to the end of 2015, the Navy will have doubled the number of ships homeported outside the U.S. to 40. There are benefits and disadvantages of this policy. Postponing maintenance, for example, is the cost of the operational utility that keeping ships available at a moment’s notice offers.
But there are larger risks than paying more in the future for maintenance that is deferred today. As bases are loaded with additional ships and their support, they become more inviting as targets. The Marianas, for example, are insufficiently protected if a conflict were to occur in the region. Plans to refortify the islands’ defenses were drawn up a decade ago. This was before China could threaten Guam with improved cruise missiles launched from the air and from the mainland. It was before the impressive growth in Chinese naval capabilities of the past ten years.
Large portions of the base’s critical infrastructure are above ground and exposed to attack. Its ground forces are meager and vulnerable to enemy special forces. The Army has placed an anti-ballistic missile system on the island but the battery has no ability to defend itself from cruise missile attacks. Enemy submarines that seek to prey on U.S. ships entering or exiting the harbor would find it all but undefended.
The U.S. Air Force operates airfields in the Mariana Islands of Tinian and Saipan. Their fuel storage capacity cannot support sustained air operations and, located above ground, is open to attack.
Pagan, a tiny island with an active volcano in the Marianas, is a fine print example of the challenge to its bases that the U.S. faces in the West Pacific. Having admitted that existing ranges are insufficient to support the U.S. Pacific Command’s training requirements, the Defense Department would like to convert Pagan into a live-fire training range. No doubt the future of some rare bird or insect will become a problem in using Pagan to buttress the security of America’s role as a Pacific power.
Warships — even declining numbers of them as the U.S. is likely to experience in the future unless relief arrives — do not a seapower make. Seapower also depends on ports, the infrastructure to support them and bases that can be defended during wartime.
This has been known since antiquity. Thucydides writes of the fate of an Athenian outpost in Thrace, Amphipolis. Its lack of defenses encouraged a Spartan attack that succeeded before help could arrive. States that fail to understand the importance of peacetime preparation pay a much higher price in war.
Improved defense of our West Pacific bases helps assure the combat effectiveness of U.S. forces in the region. This avoids the vulnerability that makes them an attractive target if worst comes to worst. The robustness of their defense also deters attack. The Mariana Islands’ military facilities need to be hardened and modernized.