This past week we travelled to the Washington Navy Yard for the Naval War College Fleet Seminar Programme’s annual pre-graduation festivities. In attendance, apart from students and faculty, were retired admiral and Naval War College President Stansfield Turner, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, and Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, the dean of the US Senate. Adm. Turner is a legendary figure around the College. During the dark days of the late Vietnam era, he replaced a curriculum that had proved intellectually destitute with another rich in history and strategic theory. Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, and Thucydides, among other greats of strategic affairs, made their debut during his presidency (1972-1974) and at his behest. We are true believers in the Turner curriculum, a tweaked version of which remains in force to this day.
Inouye, another legendary figure in military circles, offered keynote remarks after dinner. Inouye has served in the US Senate since 1963. Before that he was Hawaii’s first US representative upon achieving statehood. And before that, in 1945, he earned the Medal of Honor, the United States’ highest decoration for valour, as a US Army officer in heavy fighting near San Terenzo, Italy. As his Medal of Honor citation tells it, ‘Second Lieutenant Inouye skilfully directed his platoon through a hail of automatic weapon and small arms fire’ in an effort to take an important road junction. ‘Emplaced in bunkers and rock formations, the enemy halted the advance with crossfire from three machine guns. With complete disregard for his personal safety, Second Lieutenant Inouye crawled up the treacherous slope to within five yards of the nearest machine gun and hurled two grenades, destroying the emplacement.’ And he managed all this despite German fire that shattered his right arm.
So Inouye speaks with authority on naval and military affairs—particularly in the Asia-Pacific, his home region. He led off by reviewing the strategic value of Hawaii. He recalled being presented a copy of a 1938 Los Angeles Examiner story titled ‘Hawaii: Our Greatest Defence Outpost.’ It’s hard to gainsay this. The United States can hardly exercise influence in the Asia-Pacific without island bases like Hawaii and Guam. During the 1890s, for that reason, sea-power advocate Alfred Thayer Mahan lobbied tirelessly on behalf of annexing Hawaii. Washington ultimately did so following the Spanish-American War of 1898.
The archipelago occupies a largely empty circle with a radius of about 2,400 miles, and it’s positioned along sea routes connecting the Panama Canal with destinations along the Asian seaboard. Without forward bases, proclaimed Mahan, American merchantmen and men-of-war would be like ‘land birds,’ unable to fly far from North America. Hawaii, then, constitutes not only a defence outpost of immense value but a platform for westward forays across the Pacific Ocean. In Inouye’s words, it remains a ‘hub’ from which US naval forces can guard sea lines of communication spanning the Pacific and from which US ground forces can surge to the aid of Asian allies in wartime. Small wonder the US Pacific Command has called Pearl Harbor home for many decades.
Inouye’s sound geospatial analysis would undoubtedly resonate with the Chinese today. Some Chinese observers have come to regard the Hawaiian Islands as Asia’s ‘third island chain.’ Indeed, a recent Chinese translation of Mahan’s Influence of Sea Power upon History includes a map to that effect. In this view the islands constitute a strategic backstop to the second and first island chains, geographic features centred on the US military bases in Guam and Japan, respectively. Others even see Hawaii as a physical marker—a signpost marking the western frontier of the US maritime sphere of influence. Chinese influence would predominate in the Western Pacific and the China seas. Viewed from Beijing, Hawaii is evolving from an advance US base into the United States’ last line of defence in the Pacific Ocean.
Inouye struck a bleak chord upon turning to US-China relations and, in particular, to Beijing’s industrious quest for sea power. Over the past two years, he maintained, China has made a ‘very dangerous practice’ of probing US relations with other Asian powers for weakness. Last year’s angry encounters over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands, the Spratly Islands, and the Yellow Sea bespeak a concerted effort to test American and allied resolve.
In effect, Beijing is surveying the strategic seascape, negotiating the terms of its entry into the Asian system over which the United States has presided since 1945. Inouye implied, without quite coming out and saying it, that heavy-handed Chinese diplomacy represents self-defeating behavior for Beijing and opportunity for Washington. It reminds small Asian states that a resurgent China could trample their interests and prompts them to look outside the region for powerful friends. When Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi pointedly informs Asian officials that ‘China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact,’ small countries take him at his word—and look for ways to supplement their strength.
Such worries are a fixture in Asian diplomacy. The senator recalled that acute anxieties prevailed among Southeast Asian states in the early 1990s, when the United States was mulling a drastic drawdown of its forward presence in Asia following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. China validated such concerns when it seized Mischief Reef from the Philippines only a few years after US naval and air forces withdrew from the archipelago. Inouye recounted hearing echoes of such sentiments during a recent visit to the region. Few if any Asian governments outside Beijing would welcome an American retrenchment in Asia.
Strong alliances are necessary not only for small Asian states but to reinforce the United States’ strategic standing in the Western Pacific. Inouye insisted that military hardware like intercontinental ballistic missiles, aircraft carriers, and submarines ‘are not defensive’ despite Chinese protestations to the contrary. Weaponry seldom is for those who find themselves on its business end. Inouye pointedly observed that Chinese submarines now outnumber US boats in the Asia-Pacific, even while conceding that the US Navy ‘silent service’ retains its technological and tactical edge.
While Inouye implored Washington to keep up diplomatic ties with Beijing, along with military-to-military contacts, he also prophesied that Asia and the United States are entering the ‘most challenging and potentially dangerous period’ in recent memory. While the senator pronounced the thought of another Pacific war dismaying, he also reported concluding ‘over long years’ of life as a military man and officeholder that ‘war is nearly inevitable.’ Such sentiments are sobering coming from the chairman of the Senate Defence Appropriations Subcommittee, but at the same time, public officials seldom speak with such brisk candour. As Washington and Beijing renew military-to-military dialogue, they should follow Inouye’s example. Frank discourse with friends is important. It’s critical with prospective strategic competitors.
James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara are associate professors of strategy at the US Naval War College and co-authors of Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book and a US Naval Institute Notable Naval Book for 2010. The views voiced here are theirs alone.