Saturday, March 11, 2017

Caught in the crosshairs, life as a militarised island

Guam's role as the forward strategic point for the projection of US force in the Asia Pacific has made the Micronesian people of this island an unwitting target.
As a 'non-incorporated US territory', Guam hosts major American airforce and naval bases, and a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense or THAAD, anti-missile system.
But while local support for the US military on Guam remains strong, mixed feelings are growing over evolving geopolitical tensions.

Guam is strategically important to the United States, housing both an Air Force and Navy base. Here, a US F-16 flies along the island's coastline. Photo: US Department of Defense
The THAAD system was deployed to Guam in 2013 after reports emerged of North Korean nuclear tests.
Lingering threats posed by the North Korean regime have prompted Japanese and South Korean interest in THAAD.
In recent months, leading defence officials from both South Korea and Japan have visited Guam.
"The first one was South Korea's senior military officer and since then we have had a senior military official from Japan - their equivalent of the secretary of defence," said Lt Tim Gorman, a public affairs officer with the US military's Joint Region Marianas command.
"They really got a whole tour of the island and more than just THAAD. Although, yes, they did visit THAAD."
Accompanying the chairman of South Korea's joint chiefs of staff, General Sun Jin Lee, to Guam late last year was the head of US military forces in South Korea, General Vincent Brooks.
General Brooks told media that while the US sought better alternatives than war, it remained ready if North Korea chose to escalate aggression.
"Let's be clear, if something were to happen, or if things continue to go in the direction they're going, Kim Jong-Un and the North Korean regime must accept responsibility for anything that comes as result, and that's really the answer, what comes next, their decision."
What has come since then: North Korea launched four ballistic missiles into the sea off Japan three days ago.
It may be just another bout of military posturing from Pyongyang following the latest joint US-South Korea military drills.
However, in response the US has deployed a THAAD to South Korea.
This has in turn angered China due to the system's radar capabilities being able to reach well into its territory.
Tensions between Beijing and Washington have already been heightened in recent years due to China's naval forays in the South China Sea, placing heat on Guam's strategic importance.

Security or vulnerability

For the best part of a decade, the US military has been planning to transfer thousands of marines to Guam from Okinawa in Japan.
The plan was initially to move 8000 marines over several years, but due to concerns about Guam's social and infrastructure capacity to cope with such a build-up, the number has progressively reduced to 5000.
As it stands, the build-up will increase the island's population (165,000 in 2013) by about 10,000 residents over the next decade or so.
It's a significant addition to the military presence on Guam which already includes 6000 troops on the island.
Michael Luhan Bevacqua, an adjunct professor of Chamorros Studies at the University of Guam, said initially locals were enthusiastic about the economic stimulus that the build-up was expected to bring.
But he said eventually this sentiment cooled as people learnt about military plans to take more land, and the fact the spending would be directed towards off-island companies.
Michael Luhan Bevacqua Photo: American Soil, Chamorro Soul
Professor Bevacqua said there remained a feeling among Guam's indigenous community that the more militarised it becomes, the more of a target it might become given its proximity to competing geopolitical interests.
"The placing of the THAAD here and certain US increases sort of aimed at North Korea, Russia or China: we are told that it makes us safe, but we are at the tip of the spear as the United States has called us. And it's hard for the tip of the spear to feel safe."
Professor Bevacqua said the US made it clear that Guam's value to it was that it was on the front line against those considered threats or potential enemies.
He said the rise of US President Donald Trump and his impulsive rhetoric leads to uncertainty, exasperating a feeling of vulnerability on Guam.
"China has developed "Guam killer" missiles, developed specifically for our islands, because they see our island as a threat to them because of what the US military puts here," he explained.
"Chinese are not developing missiles to destroy the Pacific island people, they are developing them specifically for us because the US uses us as their forward strategic point for projection of force."
Military vehicles carrying Chinese ballistic missiles in a Beijing parade. China's new generation missiles are capable of reaching Guam and the Northern Marianas, US territories. Photo: AFP
In an effort to defuse tensions around the Korean peninsula, China's government has pressed North Korea to halt its nuclear and missile tests.
But with South Korea and Japan determined to prepare for North Korean aggression, Pyongyang is likely to remain defiant.
It's still unclear whether North Korea's ballistic missiles have the range to reach Guam.
However, the feeling lingers among Guam's native population that they are caught in the crosshairs of a geopolitical conflict beyond their control.

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