China's military expansion in the contested waters of the South and East China seas raises the specter of a future conflict with the United States, Japan and other nations in the region. By constructing military facilities on artificial islands built on atolls in territory claimed by neighboring nations, Beijing is provoking U.S. and Japanese countermeasures.
Four years ago, President Obama launched a game-changing strategy with a policy called the "Pacific Pivot" -- also the title of a McClatchy project published in the Herald over six days beginning on Thanksgiving. When the McClatchy newspaper chain challenged its news outlets to come with ideas on an international reporting project, Herald photographer Tiffany Tompkins-Condie came up with a winner -- an in-depth look at the conflict on the Japanese island of Okinawa over U.S. military plans. The project also encompasses the U.S. territory of Guam, another key military outpost in the Pacific. Joined by Adam Ashton, the military writer with the Tacoma Tribune, the two embarked on a month-long journey that revealed deep divisions in the island communities and the U.S. and Japanese governments over the allied military expansion in the region.
By expanding the U.S. military presence in the region at a cost of billions, Washington is sending a strong signal to Beijing. But the military buildups on both sides bring fears of a major conflict in the region.
The commanders of the Navy;s Pacific Fleet, Adm. Scott Swift, told reporters in July that "There are forces of instability at play in the region and that's generating uncertainty."
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Could America become embroiled in another war, the possible ramifications far more severe and deadly than the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and the ongoing fight against the Islamic State? Clashing with China, a nuclear nation with a massive military, raises that ruinous possibility.
Why should this matter half a world away here in Southwest Florida? The region is home to thousands of veterans and active-duty personnel, the latter of which could be called to serve in the Pacific theater should hostilities break out -- and, heaven forbid, lead to World War III.
Japan has abandoned its restriction on the military to only a defensive position by boosting defense spending and committing to joining the U.S. and other friendly nations in the region should they come under attack. A second Japanese air force fighter squadron is now headquartered on Okinawa, and the country is seeking a place to train for amphibious beach assaults. There already was a JASDF squadron on Okinawa. JASDF is adding a second squadron.
The U.S. Navy plans to assign nearly two-thirds of the 300-ship fleet expected to be operational by 2020 in the Pacific, ending the traditional even split between the Atlantic- and Pacific-based fleets. The military is also sending more troops to the Pacific islands and placing newer weapons there. Okinawa is already home to the Air Force's largest combat wing, a military port and several Marine camps.
Japan and the U.S. are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on just one of many costly projects, improving the harbor on Guam where the Navy operates a sprawling base.
Activists on both both Guam and Okinawa have been fighting military expansion plans with lawsuits and protests. Residents fear their way of life will be harmed, and they will become targets in the event of hostilities.
The Pentagon scaled down plans on a Marine deployment increase on Guam in the face of stiff opposition. Still, thousands of additional Marines will be stationed on the island over the next few years, but the military is encountering resistance on acquiring training sites for ground maneuvers on nearby islands.
Okinawa presents stronger complications for the buildup with a well-organized and well-funded opposition that includes political leaders. Environmentalists -- and an international campaign -- intend to block plans to build a military runway out into a pristine harbor called Oura Bay, home to the rare and wild Asian manatee known as the dugong.
Protesters fear the extinction of the iconic mammal in those waters, though the gentle animals may already be gone. But if some remain, a military expansion out into their habitat would hinder a recovery of the population. This, too, is mired in a batch of lawsuits.
Outside the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, encircled by the city of Ginowan and its 96,000 residents, protesters heckle soldiers nearby almost every morning. Nearby residents fear aircraft crashes into their neighborhoods, remembering the one that occurred in 2004.
On the flip side, the village adjacent to Camp Schwab embraces the Marine base, even reserving a seat of the town council for a base representative.
The Pentagon should once again weigh local concerns.
America's Pacific Pivot puts the nation in a different kind of arms race than the Cold War witnessed. Military conflict did not materialize then, as feared. Today, the stakes are just as high. But the United States must protect its interests and allies in the Pacific and push back on China's muscular military expansion, else Washington looks weak and accommodating to Beijing and embolden the nation.
We can only hope and pray that peace reigns.