More than 80 years since the attack on Pearl Harbor, the surprise military strike still looms large in Hawaii’s memory. Now, amid rising tensions with China, the US is working to shore up its dominance in the Pacific.
One peaceful Saturday morning in 2018, residents of Hawaii awoke to the text message that many had long feared: “Ballistic missile inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”
Christine Lonie, a retired naval officer who lives on the island of Oahu, was at the gym. While most islanders were bracing for impact, some putting their children down storm drains, Lonie and her husband, Chris, who is also ex-military, suspected a false alarm. “Still, we decided to shelter in place and mix up mai tais,” she says.
The error, caused by someone clicking “the wrong thing on the computer”, according to authorities, has had a long-term effect on the psyche of Hawaiians. It was a reminder that if a missile were fired at the US from Asia, these islands would be the first in line. “Everyone has the perspective of Pearl Harbor,” says Lonie, referring to the 1941 air attack by Japan that propelled the US into the Second World War.
Hawaii is once again a port in a storm. In April, China signed a security deal with the Solomon Islands that could result in Chinese units and ships stationed on the Pacific archipelago, which is closer to Honolulu than Beijing. The most senior US admiral in the region has warned of a new “boldness” about China’s threats towards Taiwan and that the war in Ukraine shows that such an invasion could be possible. Some analysts say that the US has already lost the balance of power in the Pacific. A long-delayed US pivot in strategic focus is under way and the 50th state has renewed its role as a crucial staging post for the military. The Department of Defense administers about 80,000 hectares of Hawaii, representing almost every branch of land and sea warfare. Most sunseekers on a stretch of Waikiki probably don’t realise that they’re laying their towels on military land or that the brutalist balconies of the Hale Koa resort are only for veterans and serving soldiers seeking r&r. Likewise, most are oblivious to the sheer number of bases, which have their own police and shopping malls. The islands of aloha and surfing are also an important training ground for what could be the next theatre of war.
“We are really in the business of deterrence,” says Major General Chris McPhillips, director of strategic planning and policy at the US Indo-Pacific Command (Indopacom), a strategic nerve centre at the top of a hill in Oahu that co-ordinates 375,000 naval and land personnel over a vast area from India to just off the coast of California. Under Indopacom’s direction, the military has embarked on “forward-deploying” thousands of troops across the Pacific. In Darwin, Australia, scores of US Marines are in place; US Army Pacific has stepped up training in the Philippines, Japan and South Korea; and in June, Hawaii will host the Rim of the Pacific exercise, bringing together allies for what is both a joint training drill and a show of force.
McPhillips gives monocle a whistle-stop tour of China’s nefariousness. “There’s a long-term strategy to create an environment where violations of the rules-based order are normalised,” he says, pointing to spots on a map of the Asia-Pacific region in his office. “Look to India and the line of control where there is armed aggression by the prc, or east to Vietnam where dams are being built by China and water is being diverted. Every day the pressure on Taiwan is ratcheting up, in terms of ship presence and air incursions.”
McPhillips talks about the “tyranny of distance” – in essence, the problem of how to get US forces across the ocean in the event of a flash outbreak of violence. If China were to suddenly rain down missiles on Taiwan or if US and Chinese ships collided in the South China Sea, which Beijing has peppered with military runways, it could take hours or days simply getting US troops there from far-flung bases.
“Most sunseekers on a stretch of Waikiki probably don’t realise that they’re laying their towels on military land; likewise, most are oblivious to the sheer number of military bases in Hawaii”
“What we are trying to do out here is to posture the force across the region so that we are more forward, more of the time,” says McPhillips.
At 07.46, on the other side of Oahu, 24 young US Marines are daubing their faces with camouflage paint beneath a banyan tree. Hawaii’s balmy trade winds don’t penetrate into this thicket of jungle and sweat rolls down the faces of two soldiers carrying rocket launchers, which are filled with sand to simulate being fully loaded.
The squad is in a gruelling three-week scenario that pits them against a Chinese enemy. They will sleep in the open and track their opponents through the undergrowth. Their sergeants say that, unlike in Afghanistan, they will be up against a “pure adversary” of comparable might and preparedness, which is indicative of how much China’s forces have modernised over the past decade.
Occasionally there’s a peal of gunfire in the distance or the shudder of a helicopter overhead. “Everyone thinks that Hawaii is a paradise,” says Staff Sergeant Kevin Cassara, squatting on an ammunition box filled with blanks. “But out here they get biting centipedes and wild hogs.”
For more than 20 years the US Marines served largely as a counterinsurgency force in the Middle East. These 24 soldiers have so far trained mostly in the deserts of California or Australia; the jungle can be bewildering. “The Marine Corps is going back to its amphibious roots,” says Cassara. “We’re shifting to be a light-infantry, island-hopping force – and Hawaii is essential for this. We can mirror what they’ll face in the South China Sea.”
The platoon halts at the side of a dirt road. Corporal Stefan Murillo kneels beside his gunner, who is lying prone with his weapon trained on a gap in the foliage. “We’ll set an ambush and wait for the enemy to come by,” says Murillo, whispering and sniffing back sweat. “The next wars might take place on islands just off China – hot, humid places like this. So it’s about getting Marines ready for this kind of climate, this vegetation, so that they are more lethal.”
Would the US directly intervene if China invaded Taiwan? Indopacom will not say. Australia’s former prime minister Kevin Rudd argues in his book The Avoidable War that the lack of clear consequences if such red lines are crossed, agreed between the US and China, only raises the risk of a confrontation. “Since 2017, Washington has increasingly come to believe that a Chinese military takeover of Taiwan – and especially one that the US did not resist – would effectively be the end of the US-led rules-based order in Asia and perhaps the world,” Rudd tells Monocle.
In Hawaii, the pivot to the Pacific that Barack Obama’s administration announced a decade ago is now happening in earnest. At Bellows Beach on Oahu, Marines are being taught how to drive new light tactical vehicles rather than the armoured Humvees employed in Iraq. (At one point a staff sergeant has to usher a few errant sun worshippers from the sand.) And on the flight line at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, crew members are testing the mv-22 Osprey; part helicopter, part plane, it can land vertically and is superceding the Cobra and Huey attack helicopters that were a mainstay of Marines operations.
“The threat isn’t always the enemy – it can be logistical supply lines and the Osprey can be a connector,” says Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Blumenfeld. “As the situation deteriorates in the region, being able to rely on our allies and relationships will be paramount.”
The US has traditionally relied on friendly atolls and archipelago nations to island-hop its forces across the Pacific. China’s deal with the Solomon Islands, which have been a US thoroughfare since the Second World War, has everyone spooked because it shows that Beijing is now seeking to do the same. While the US hunkered down in Iraq and Afghanistan, then navel-gazed about what role it should play in the world, China handed out grants and loans in strategic outposts around Asia-Pacific, reaching a peak of $287m (€272m) in 2016, according to Australia’s Lowy Institute. In Vanuatu, it has paid for a port expansion that many fear could be turned to military use. It has curried favour in Fiji, Kiribati and Papua New Guinea, and is accused of funding infrastructure to ensnare developing countries in a debt trap. Beijing has said that its investments are welcomed in the Pacific, while the prime minister of the Solomons has hit back at criticism of the deal, saying that his country can manage its own sovereign affairs.
“I’m concerned that, left unchecked, many of the countries in the region will fall prey to the Chinese,” says Major General McPhillips. “That is an authoritarian, dictatorial and closed society.”
It is all a question of resolve and whether the US and the West are truly committed to competing with China in the Pacific. The US will open a new embassy on the Solomon Islands after years without one. At Pearl Harbor, the Pacific Naval Fleet Band is tuning up for a grand summer tour, taking in Palau, Vietnam and the Philippines, among others, as they accompany the USNS Mercy on its medical aid mission through the region. “We’ll hit strategic countries where we want to maintain relationships,” says the band’s leader, Lieutenant Luslaida Barbosa.
There’s certainly a new sense of focus but the US’s allies wonder whether it will last while war rages in Europe. At Fort Shafter, the “Pineapple Pentagon” and the oldest US military outpost outside North America, US Army Pacific General Charles Flynn (brother of Michael Flynn, who was briefly Donald Trump’s national security adviser) is just back from a five-nation tour. “In the questions being asked by think tanks, policymakers and military leaders, the undertone was, ‘Are you committed out here?’ My response was, ‘Absolutely, and there’s plenty of work for all of us.’”
Others aren’t so sure. “The line that I’m getting from US government officials is, ‘We’ll just deal with Ukraine and then we’ll get back on track with China,’” says Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow at Stanford and the American Enterprise Institute, who has advised the US military on strategy and speaks to us in a civilian capacity. “But we are already behind the curve on our ability to compete militarily with China.” For the past 20 years, says Mastro, the forces at Indopacom’s disposal have been significantly less than what it was assigned. McPhillips’s team will not say how many forces are “ready to go”.
Numbers do count, says Thomas Fargo, former admiral and commander of Indopacom. “We still field the finest ships and aircraft, and the quality of our people is second to none,” he tells monocle in his office in Honolulu. “If you look at the force we have in the western Pacific, it is no greater than it was 30 years ago, whereas the Chinese order of battle has gone up by a factor of three to five.”
Hawaii’s importance is expected to grow in the years ahead and the US Department of Defense must keep Hawaiians on board about sharing their islands with so many soldiers. Last year military families on Oahu found that their tap water had a whiff of petrol: a historic naval fuel reserve called Red Hill had leaked into the supply.
“This was the boiling point for the relationship,” says Esther Kia‘aina, vice-chair of Honolulu City Council, who has campaigned for greater land rights for Native Hawaiians. The Pentagon has since said that Red Hill will be closed. “If they hadn’t taken us seriously, you would see a whittling away of the overall military operations in Hawaii,” she says, referring to renegotiations in 2029 for several key leases of military land.
There is no greater mark of this fractious co-existence than Pearl Harbor. Prior to the pandemic, 1.8 million tourists a year visited the site and yet it’s still an active military base housing Indopacom’s war-gaming centre. (By most accounts, the US keeps losing when it plays out a Chinese takeover of Taiwan, though the military says that finding failures is the point of the exercise.)
Pearl Harbor’s importance in the national story of the US can’t be underestimated. For some, it’s a potent symbol today of how a war in Europe that is left to fester – a prolonged disturbance of the rules-based order – can eventually come knocking at the US’s door.
“What happened in the Second World War was that a couple of powers weren’t receiving any resistance and, almost too late, the Western world rose up and challenged them,” says James Neuman, a naval reservist who leads tours to the memorial of the USS Arizona, a battleship that sank with 1,102 men onboard. “This is a reminder that America can’t be in isolation as a country,” adds Neuman, peering into the sunlit harbour where the hull of the Arizona can be glimpsed on the seabed. “We need to be vigilant and prepared at any time to stand up for our values.”