By Fidel V. Ramos
Former Philippine President
(First of Two Parts)
During the past two weeks, events on the international scene, particularly within the Asia-Pacific arena, provided an uncanny (but welcome) reprise of FVR’s younger days which led this columnist to ask, “Does history really repeat itself???” In answer, allow us to share with our readers some personal landmarks along life’s journey.
Indeed, history does in this particular episode – but, hopefully, will not repeat the destruction and suffering brought about by World War II.
This past week, the US and North Korea, through their heated rhetoric and provocative actions, have dominated the global limelight. The NoKors, on one hand, have deftly shifted the onus of their death-dealing nuclear threats to a likely and accessible military target – the US stronghold of Guam which is America’s westernmost frontier, at the Philippines’ doorstep.
Even the landmark ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Summit and Meeting of the Dialogue Partners (which includes the heavyweights: US, China, Japan, Russia, and EU) were overshadowed by the intensity of the US-NoKor exchange, in spite of the official statement that: “Rising tensions on the Korean peninsula stemming from long-range missile tests by North Korea… ‘seriously threaten peace, security, and stability in the region and the world. In this regard, we strongly urge the DPRK to immediately comply fully with its obligations under all relevant UN Security Council resolutions,’ it said, referring to North Korea by its official name.” (Channelnewsasia.com, 05 August 2017).
“Hitch-hiking” across the Pacific, 1946
FVR’S interest in Guam dates back to July 1946 when he first passed through that war-devastated island on the first leg of a long journey from manila to new york. He was on his way to The US Military Academy at west point as the first Filipino cadet after WWII, having won that one coveted “Pensionado” (scholarship) slot through competitive exams.
That trip took 12 days, with no airlines yet in operation, but only US Air Force bucket-seat C-47s which had to island-hop due to their limited range. Literally, he “hitch-hiked on a space-available” basis on US military cargo planes.
In 1946, Guam was a community of Quonset huts and tent installations, like most US military camps in the Philippines after liberation. Over the years since then, FVR was able to visit or transit through Guam, the last being in June, 2005, or 12 years ago as the guest of honor at the Philippine Independence Day celebration in Agana, the capital.
Ironically, but fittingly, the US government in Guam accorded special honor with a handsome monument to eminent Filipinos like Apolinario Mabini and 57 other revolutionary heroes who were exiled there in 1901 – having refused to take the oath of allegiance to the US Mabini et.al. were detained in Agana’s Asan seaside district where he wrote La Revolucion Filipina, his seminal work recording Filipino struggles towards independence and nationhood.
much like thousands of Filipino pioneers in Guam and the Marianas, Mabini and his compatriots endured hardships in a foreign land in the middle of the vast pacific, far away from their loved ones.
Unsinkable Guam: U.S. forward defense
It was an eye-opener for me to see at that time Guam’s visible progress evidenced by new hotels and shopping centers. Amidst the anxieties of global recession, particularly the failure on the mainland of well-known American corporate giants, the people of Guam – even if they had not been spared the impacts of The US meltdown – continued to be cautiously optimistic.
Of its then 170,000 population, 45% were of Filipino ancestry who constituted a swing-vote in territorial politics. Two significant factors were cited for their hopeful outlook:
(1) Ongoing build-up of Guam as the new forward platform for US military power in the Pacific, Indian Ocean, Arabian Gulf, and beyond – as far as Africa.
(2) Anticipation of change and hope for a better future represented by the consolidation of US military forces in the Pacific.
Very quietly, with little fanfare, the US was building up Guam as the key to its “forward defense” strategy to project American military power in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean. Considered an “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” as the Subic Naval Base used to be known, Guam hosts the Apra Naval Base and Andersen Air Force Base – now major components of the US Pacific Command (PACOM).
Compared to the traditional homeports of the US in California or Hawaii, basing military forces on Guam results in much shortened transit times to Asia and beyond. The distance from Guam to Manila is 1,700 miles – which is two days sailing for a carrier battle group. But from San Diego, Manila is nine days away, while from Honolulu it takes seven days sailing. According to analysts, the 1,300 miles between North Korea and Guam is well within the range of its latest nuke-armed ICBM.
At that time, naval visionary Alfred Thayer Mahan and his disciples (who included Theodore Roosevelt, then Assistant Navy Secretary and future US President) regarded the projection of American power into the Western Pacific and East Asia as crucial to US “forward defense” – and a powerful expression of America’s “Manifest Destiny” as a global power.
Guam’s importance as a strategic outpost has been clear to American political leaders and military strategists since the 1890’s.
America’s manifest destiny
Mahan started from the assumption that America’s Atlantic Coast was well-protected by friendly Europeans (the British and French), and that east asia and the inner group of islands enclosing the China Sea – Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Borneo and Sumatra – were occupied by peoples alien to the Americans ethnically, culturally, and politically.
And so, it was most likely that an invasion of the American mainland would emanate from the Pacific.
Mahan and Roosevelt also argued that if America were to overcome the tyranny of distance – and gain the capability to deploy US power westward – vitally needed was a string of coaling stations between California and East Asia where its warships could re-supply. Hence, Washington annexed Midway, Pago-Pago, and other islands.
Through Roosevelt’s influence, the US acquired Guam and the Philippines in the Treaty of Paris which ended the Spanish-American War of 1898.
And, sure enough, Mahan’s forecast of a deadly threat to America coming from the Pacific became reality just four decades afterward.
In December 1941, Japan, feeling beleaguered, launched a pre-emptive strike against America – destroying the pacific fleet at pearl harbor and occupying the Philippines and Guam, before us forces stopped Japan’s drive short of midway.
Focal point of U.S. power
As a result of these developments, Guam’s overall value to American deployments towards Asia and the Middle East has tremendously increased. Guam – more than Honolulu – has become America’s farther secure base from which to implement its strategy of “forward defense” outward from the pacific.
Not only has the island became the site of important bases of the US Pacific Command. Washington has almost completed the process of making Guam the linchpin of its overall strategy to insure dominance in the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Already, the build-up in Guam over the next ten years is being billed as the largest of the US military.
Indeed, Guam is extremely critical to any American need to respond quickly to any sizeable natural disaster, civilian emergency or military crisis anywhere in Asia and all the way to East Africa – at a time when the US will continue to be regarded by the global community as the “guardian of freedom.”
Geopolitical scenario, 120 years later
Now, more than a century later, Mahan’s geopolitical blueprint still serves present-day pentagon doctrine.
In East Asia, the U.S. clings to air and land bases in South Korea. Moreover, it has existing mutual defense treaties with Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Australia, and the Philippines, and maintains a foothold in Singapore.
Tensions are still palpable in the Korean Peninsula (where Pyongyang now possesses an ICBM-nuclear capability), even if regional anxieties may have diminished with the warming up between Beijing and Taipei on opposite sides of the Taiwan straits.
In the Indian Ocean and in Southeast Asia’s strategic sea lanes with the oil-regions of West Asia and the Middle East, the navies of India, China, Japan and Russia have been active in showing their flags.
Today, it is eyeball-to-eyeball between U.S. President Donald Trump and Nokor Leader Kim Jong-Un. With such a heightened state of tension, it won’t be easy for either side or the entire Asia-Pacific for that matter to return back to a state of normalcy.
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