Interviews

Military Build-up in the Asia-Pacific: An Interview With Hawaii’s Sen. Brian Schatz

Hawaii’s senior senator discusses missile defense, prospects for peace on the Korean peninsula, and more.

By Jon Letman for
Military Build-up in the Asia-Pacific: An Interview With Hawaii’s Sen. Brian Schatz

Sen Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, speaks to an election night crowd at a local ballroom, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Honolulu.

Credit: AP Photo/Marco Garcia

When Hawaii’s then-Lieutenant Governor Brian Schatz was appointed to fill the seat of Senator Daniel Inouye upon his death in 2012, Schatz had just turned 40 and was taking over for a man who had served in the Senate for 50 years.

Standing before the cameras being referred to as senator for the first time, Schatz noted that his responsibilities as lieutenant governor included maximizing public resources coming to Hawaii, while hastening to add, “I believe global climate change is real and it is the most urgent challenge or our generation.”

In the seven years since, the self-identified climate hawk has put climate change and clean energy front and center, while keeping federal military funds flowing home to Hawaii. 

An outspoken and prolific critic of President Donald Trump on Twitter, Schatz is also a ranking member on the Senate Committee on Appropriations for the Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies, playing a consequential role in making decisions that impact defense policies.

On July 11, Schatz took questions from Diplomat contributor Jon Letman on military construction projects and related matters in Hawaii, Okinawa, Guam, and beyond. The interview, conducted by telephone, has been edited for clarity and length.

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Jon Letman: I’d like to ask you about military construction and projects in the Asia-Pacific region, starting in Hawaii. Following Hawaii’s 2018 incoming ballistic missile scare, there’s been an even greater push to bolster missile defense. In 2018 you and Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska introduced the Integrated Missile Defense Act. Can you briefly explain how enhanced missile defense launchers and radar are in the best interest of people in Hawaii?

Brian Schatz: Well, our first line of defense is diplomacy and that can’t be emphasized enough, but if everything fails at the diplomatic level and we are attacked, it’s important to be able to protect ourselves and that’s what this bill is about.

I’m thinking about the Homeland Defense Radar Hawaii system. That’s the one that has two sites that are yet to be built on Oahu’s north shore.

There are two potential sites. One will be selected. 

And the money for this is coming from where?

From the Defense Appropriation.

There’s plenty of money for this?

I don’t know that it’s fair to say that there’s “plenty of money” when we’re running trillion dollar deficits, but I think in the context of the defense budget this is a priority.

Can you talk about if you support the Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) on Kauai being transitioned from testing and training to becoming operational or combat ready?

I do not. PMRF serves an important purpose and turning it into a missile defense site has intuitive appeal but it won’t make us any safer and would diminish the Missile Defense Agency’s ability to do the testing to make sure the system works so I don’t support it.

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Is there any more talk in defense circles about PMRF becoming operationalized?

I’d say that talk has waned significantly and there’s a broad recognition that there are smarter ways to do this.

Missile defense has been compared to hitting a bullet with a bullet. It’s also been criticized by various non-military, non-governmental scientific analysts calling it “spotty,” “lackluster,” “unreliable.” Are you confident that missile defense is really going to protect Hawaii in the way that some say it will?

I am, but I think the criticisms of the efficacy of the program, especially in the past, are legitimate and their success rate has gone up but not enough to make me totally comfortable. They have had recent tests that were successful and that’s encouraging but I don’t think we should be satisfied.

Some in the Hawaii congressional delegation emphasize that Hawaii is a target, especially of North Korea. Do you share that view?

I think it is in our best interest to prepare for the worst but I wouldn’t want to opine about what U.S. territory or state or city would be a likely target from the DPRK or anyone else.

What do you think it is about Hawaii that would make it a target?

I just don’t think it’s responsible to sort of muse about which state or part of the country would be targeted. I don’t think we know. But I think it’s in our best interest to be prepared.

Let’s move on to Pohakuloa Training Area (PTA). As you know, it’s very large — 207 square miles, which is the same size as the entire island of Guam. Part of PTA — there are different parcels, and one is about a 23,000 acre parcel on a 65-year lease from the state for $1. That lease is up in August of 2029. I know the Army very much wants to extend the lease or outright buy the land. What are your thoughts on PTA, the direction it’s going?

PTA is essential for training but the lease negotiations are between the state, led by the Department of Land and Natural Resources, and the Department of the Army and the Pentagon so the terms of the lease renewal are not my kuleana (responsibility).

Do you think that $1 for 65 years is something they should renew? I mean if it were up to you, would you say let’s renew this for 65 more years for a dollar?

I’m always very careful to not put myself in the governor’s shoes. He has a job and I have a job and although we work well together, it’s not my job, especially publicly, to tell him what he ought to be doing.

There’s a lot happening up there at PTA and, as I understand it, troops are being brought in from as far away as Okinawa, Alaska, and Guam for various training exercises and, of course, RIMPAC. So it fulfills that role but there’s also local opposition. People outside the gates are protesting with various concerns. Do you share those concerns or do you understand why those people are concerned about PTA?

I think it is always wise for Hawaii residents to be vigilant about natural resources and cultural resources. And they care about the island and want to make sure that whatever happens is done in a responsible manner.

The lawsuit last year ruled against the state as far as not properly enforcing the terms of the lease and making sure that they malama aina (care for the land), not taking care of the land properly. Is that something you think should come into consideration when considering the renewal of the lease?

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I think they need to comply with the terms of the lease. I don’t actually know about that lawsuit.

Let’s move on to Okinawa. In May of 2015 you met with Okinawa’s then-Governor Takeshi Onaga who expressed strong opposition to the Futenma Replacement Facility. Four years later, now Governor Denny Tamaki continues to call for Henoko to be scrapped and in a February referendum in Okinawa, 72 percent of the votes cast were against Henoko – so clearly there’s a lot of opposition. My question is, do you think the forced construction at Henoko of this new U.S. facility is consistent with U.S. values of respect for human rights, democracy, and the environment?

I think the U.S. policy, as you know, is to honor the bilateral agreement to return Futenma back to the people of Okinawa and reduce the Marine Corps footprint on the island. I know Henoko is a topic of controversy and consternation and we’re going to have to work through that but our government and the government of Japan, as well as the government of Okinawa, have to work together to try to find a solution that works for everybody.

[Former U.S. Ambassador to Japan] Caroline Kennedy and others have said that “Henoko is the only solution.” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said that too. So pretty much the solution seems to be “we’re building it and that’s it.” Do you think that’s reasonable for the people of Okinawa?

I can’t speak for the people of Okinawa, but I think whatever we do ought to be done carefully, respectfully, and consistent with our longstanding relationships and to fulfill our commitment to reduce the Marine’s presences on the island. 

On May 1, you questioned Marine Corps General Robert Neller about the [U.S. Marine] relocation to Guam. You asked him if it made sense to relocate to Guam. He said, “The plan as it’s currently designed I think is worthy of possibly a review.” What did you take that to mean and do you still think that the U.S. needs to have more than 26,000 Marines in Okinawa and Guam and the Western Pacific?

I think the whole plan is worthy of a review and the Marine Corps has adjusted its position over time and part of that is realizing how unrealistic some of their original plans were for Guam. But some of those Marines could land in Alaska, some as rotational forces in Australia or elsewhere, some on the main island of Japan, and so we have a commitment to reduce the Marines’ presence on Okinawa, that’s a firm commitment.  But that doesn’t mean we have to do so in a way that doesn’t make sense for the U.S. military. I think that the original plan was – well, is so stale – just in terms of time passed and circumstances changed that this is all ripe for a review.

In that exchange with Gen. Neller you yourself had asked about lift and why it did make sense to have Marines in Guam or Okinawa when they could possibly be elsewhere.

That’s right. I think that the Marines are supposed to be capable of answering a fight within a 24 hour period but if they’re stationed in a place where they have to wait for airlift from the U.S. mainland then the advantages of being forwarded in the region are significantly reduced without the lift. 

Meanwhile in Guam there’s a rash of military construction projects: there’s the Multi-purpose Machine Gun Range inside Northwest Field in Andersen Airforce Base, there’s new earth-covered magazines and ordnance pad at Naval Base Guam, there’s amphibious landing and live-fire training and other small arms ranges in Tinian and Pagan in CNMI, the MITT and the MIRC, which are huge. And then you have people talk about shifting the burden or reducing the burden on Okinawa, and you’ve got people in Guam, Chamorro indigenous people and others, feeling frustrated, angry, overwhelmed, and disrespected by the damage that they see coming to the environment and restricted access to culturally important sites, to further accommodate the military. Do you think Guam should be the ones to reduce the burden for Okinawa in this way?

Well, I’m not sure I accept all of the premises of that question but let me just say I think the whole plan is ripe for re-evaluation. I think Guam will continue to play a role for the United States military but there ought to be flexibility that accounts for the current geopolitical situation, our strategic needs and the needs of our partners and governments of U.S. territories.  

OK, can I ask you quickly about the veterans’ situation. There’s no veterans hospital on Guam, is that correct?

Is that correct? I think there’s a VA facility that is joint with DOD.

There’s a community based outreach clinic (CBOC), which is not a hospital.

I know there’s a CBOC, but I thought they were — there’s a Navy hospital that vets have access to so I’m not entirely sure what the situation is.

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I know that vets there are feeling kind of left hung out to dry and they serve with such commitment. I’m wondering what you’d like to see happen to improve the situation for veterans in Guam as well as American Samoa and the COFA nations.

That’s interesting that you said that because I was going to mention CNMI and American Samoa. I think we need to build more facilities but I also think that telehealth and telemedicine offer tremendous promise throughout the Asia-Pacific region. A lot of vets have to fly to Honolulu to go to Tripler to get care. Of course, some of that has to be done in person, but a lot of it doesn’t and the VA is moving very aggressively forward with telehealth. This is one of my highest priorities as the lead Democrat on the VA Subcommittee on Appropriations and we provided additional resources specifically for telehealth in the insular areas. So this won’t totally obviate the need for people to fly to Honolulu but it will dramatically reduce it. Especially when you need a specialist, this has the potential to give access to the best clinicians on the planet remotely to people who would otherwise not have access to that high quality care. Again, it doesn’t obviate the need for facilities throughout the insular areas but it’s one avenue to make really good progress in a short period of time.

What’s your position on bringing a formal end to the Korean war with a peace treaty with the U.S. and DPRK?

You know, I generally speak in favor of this and I favor diplomacy and any time we have the opportunity to declare the end of a war I think we ought to do it. More generally, I have been as careful as I can be in not criticizing President Trump and the State Department for their diplomacy with DPRK, not because I think they are doing particularly well, but because if the alternative is war, I would rather them stumble through their diplomatic efforts than stumble into a war. So I have my critiques of the way they are negotiating and whether or not we’re getting enough in these negotiations but I think those critiques pale in comparison to the horror, both on the Korean peninsula, and potentially for the United States and our allies, if we ended up in a war.

So in 2020 if the Democrats take the White House back, you think the next Democrat president should continue direct diplomacy, and at a lower level too, with DPRK?

Yes.

Continue what the Trump administration has started…

I guess I wouldn’t quite phrase it that way but I think whoever is president next ought to aggressively pursue diplomacy. I think the diplomacy that is happening right now is a little ham-handed and there’s a reason that you have lower level meetings that lead to higher level meetings that lead to a meeting among the principals that lead to announceables. It’s not like those structures and processes are just made up because people are feeling bureaucratic about things. It’s because that’s the way to do diplomacy. It’s the proven way to prevent conflict. It doesn’t always work but it’s still the most likely way to prevent conflict. I don’t think they’re doing diplomacy right, but I still think it’s better for them to do diplomacy badly than war badly.

Jon Letman is a Hawaii-based independent journalist covering politics, people, and the environment in the Asia-Pacific region. He has written for Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy in Focus, Inter Press Service and others.