National security editor Patrick Walters | June 14, 2008
THE US is building a new permanent aircraft carrier and its name is
The US island territory is destined to become the key hub for American maritime power in the western Pacific with the start of a long, $15 billion construction boom. The strategic importance of Guam to Washington 's long-term presence in East Asia was a point hammered home by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates in Singapore a fortnight ago. Gates's speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual gathering of Asian defence ministers and military chiefs, was his most complete exposition of future US defence strategy in the region since he took over from Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon 18 months ago. Gates's key theme to his East Asian interlocutors was that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the US was not about to begin a long, slow, historic withdrawal from the region. Instead he outlined the concept of the US as a "resident power" in addition to its longstanding roles as an ally, partner, friend and routine offshore presence.
Critical to its long-term focus as a resident power will be Guam , the site of the largest US military build-up in the Mariana Islands since World War II. As the Pentagon chief pointed out, sovereign US territory in the western Pacific stretches all the way from the Aleutian Islands to Guam .
For US defence planners aiming for a nimbler, more flexible US global military posture across the globe, Guam is an ideal staging post. And for close allies of the US in the western Pacific, led by Japan and Australia , the island promises to become a vital facility as it hosts exercises and training with allied air and naval forces.
Earlier this month en route to Singapore , Gates made a flying visit to the island, 6000km west of Hawaii and 2000km southeast of Japan, to look at planned defence infrastructure. Acquired from Spain in 1898 following the Spanish-American War, Guam became a refuelling station for the US Navy. In December 1941, Japan overran the island, but it was recaptured by US forces after bitter fighting in 1944. Since then it has been an important logistics base.
During the next six years the Pentagon will spend billions on a new port capable of berthing a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, air bases, schools, hospitals and houses for US military and their families.
Guam's Anderson air base will soon be home to a detachment of unmanned, long-range Global Hawk surveillance aircraft able to track Chinese warships and submarines emerging from their home ports into the Pacific Ocean or the South China Sea . The US Air Force's newest fighter, the F-22 Raptor, will also be periodically flying on exercises from the island.
By 2014 Guam will receive about 8000 US marines who will transfer from their present base in Okinawa , the Japanese Government helping pay the $10 billion-plus relocation costs. With a population of about 170,000, Guam is already home to 12,000 US military personnel and the heavy build-up promises to put further strain on local communities. Its naval base hosts three attack submarines and the air force rotates its strategic bombers through Guam .
"Our Asian friends, whether or not they are formally allied to us, welcome our growing presence on Guam . As the island's new facilities take shape in coming years, they will be increasingly multilateral in orientation, with training opportunities and possible pre-positioning of assets," Gates said in Singapore . Gates's Shangri-La Dialogue speech was designed to convey a message of reassurance to the US 's close allies in East Asia that talk of the gradual diminution of the US 's military posture in the face of a renascent China was misplaced.
Questioned how the US could guarantee that it would not lose interest in Asia , Gates was blunt: "We will not lose interest because we are an Asian power," he said. "People would have been surprised, perhaps, in 1945 to see the US , 60 years later, still engaged in a larger way and a broader front in Asia than we were even at the end of the war ... nobody should have any worries on that score."
The Defence Secretary argues forcefully Washington 's presence has been an essential element in assisting Asia 's economic revival, "opening doors, protecting and preserving common spaces on the high seas, in space and more and more in the cyber world".
"This presence has offered other nations the crucial element of choice and enabled their entry into a globalised international society," he said. "As someone who has served seven US presidents, I want to convey to you with confidence that any future US administration's Asia security policy is going to be grounded in the fact that the United States remains a nation with strong and enduring interests in the region, interests that will endure no matter which political party occupies the White House next year."
Gates went on to say that any speculation in the region about the US losing interest in Asia struck him as "preposterous or disingenuous, or both"." America 's status in Asia rests on longstanding interests and deeply held notions about the basic character of the United States . However, we understand that our friends, partners and allies need reassurance at times. We will offer that consistently."
He stressed US military ties with East Asia , even with its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan , were more constructive than at any time in US history.
Recently Gates inaugurated a direct defence phone hotline with his Chinese counterpart, Liang Guanglie, and the two sides have also begun regular dialogues on strategic issues to improve bilateral co-operation.
Last week Liang thanked the US for its relief aid sent to China 's Sichuan province and said there had been "stable progress" on defence ties between the Beijing and Washington .
In Singapore , Gates - in an implicit reference to China - stressed the US wanted to work with every Asian country and "deepen our understanding of their military and defence finances and larger national security decisions".
"We do so in a sincere and open effort to avoid misreading intentions and so that we can continue our work as strategic partners," he said to an audience that included Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the general staff of China 's People's Liberation Army. Gates did not give any hint that he had been briefed in advance on Kevin Rudd's novel concept of an Asia-Pacific community by 2020. He said Washington welcomed the search for a new security architecture and frameworks that could moderate interstate competition. But the Pentagon did have some benchmarks. East Asia should avoid an approach that treated the quest for a new security body as some kind of zero-sum game.
According to Gates it can only succeed if the region is treated as a single entity with no room for a separate East Asian order. That means the US must be part of any new security framework.
Washington would be willing to work with friends and partners to assist the evolution of "security arrangements suitable to common needs", he said. The clear message was that the US would be there to help shape any new longer-term Asian-Pacific security forum.
"We certainly share an interest in institutionalising various forums to deal with region-specific problems and we intend to participate in their evolution," was Gates's parting message.