James Holmes

The Geopolitics of Hawaii

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James Holmes

The Geopolitics of Hawaii

They aren’t just about sun, fun, and ukuleles. The islands also hold great strategic importance.

This week the Naval Diplomat wings his way to Honolulu for a "Track II" conference with Indian and Chinese delegations at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, an academic institution based within the U.S. Pacific Command. The theory behind Track II meetings is that unofficial diplomacy — gatherings where the interlocutors are hostage to no political constituency and thus can speak their minds — spurs creative thinking and debate.

Having exchanged views, participants then return home to act as opinion makers vis-a-vis their governments and fellow citizens. Track II negotiations at Oslo were widely credited with advancing the cause of Arab-Israeli peace during the 1990s. I'll let you know if we achieve peace in our time this week.

But I digress. Hawaii is fascinating not just for the obvious reasons — the tropical setting and so forth — but because of its eventful history, which owes much to its geostrategic value. It has captured attention even in China, where some sea-power pundits portray this Eastern Pacific feature as Asia's third offshore island chain. (I guess that makes the Americas the fourth.) During the 19th century, ambitious seafaring states — the United States, Great Britain, Japan, and occasionally Germany — jockeyed for power and influence in the archipelago.

Alfred Thayer Mahan mounted a tireless lobbying campaign in his writings, imploring the U.S. government to acquire the islands. In so doing, it could assure access to Honolulu while preventing some hostile power from acquiring the islands and, perhaps, denying access to American seafarers crisscrossing the Pacific Ocean. Mahan ultimately got his wish following the Spanish-American War, which wrought a revolution in American thinking about national power and purposes.

Congress had vacillated over whether to annex Hawaii, while President Grover Cleveland quashed a previous annexation bid. The defeat of Spain, however, delivered a modest Caribbean and Asia-Pacific empire into the republic's hands. Island acquisitions were suddenly a matter of expediency. Imperial management demanded way stations along the sea routes between North America and Asia. The "splendid little war" thus unclogged the political works in Washington, which proceeded with annexation in the months afterward.

In geopolitics as in real estate, it's all about location, location, location. Hawaii occupies a particularly auspicious location some 2,400 miles southwest of San Francisco. It lies along the sea lanes linking Panama with Asia. That was a big deal for sea-power advocates who fretted about where to stage the main U.S. Navy fleet — Atlantic or Pacific? — and for officials charged with administering the Philippine Islands. It took months to combine the fleet for action in the days before the Panama Canal opened. In 1898, for instance, the Pacific-based battleship Oregon had to undertake an epic voyage around South America to get into the Caribbean fight. Reaching the combat theater was an ordeal in itself.

Hawaii also lies astride the sea lines of communication connecting North America with Australia. That accentuated the islands' importance during the age of British maritime supremacy, and of course during World War II. Ships transiting between Canada and Australia commonly tarried at Honolulu for provisions and, after the onset of the age of steam, to quench steam engineering plants' thirst for fuel. Admiral Chester Nimitz masterminded the Pacific War from Pearl Harbor.

The other reason Hawaii was a magnet for diplomats and strategists' attention was that it was the only geographic feature around. Mahan depicted it as a lonely outpost on a featureless plain hundreds of miles across. Competition for control of the archipelago was inexorably zero-sum, simply because warships and merchantmen had no alternative port of call.

So the Hawaiian Islands aren't all about sun, fun, and ukuleles. They're about politics and strategy.