The Los Angeles Times
Perspective On Defense, 22 November 1996

Milton R. Copulos and F. Andy Messing Jr.

Marianas Could Be Pivotal Again

SAIPAN, Marianas Islands--

China's military increasingly is the tail that wags the dog in its foreign policy. This phenomenon highlights America's newest threat: a potentially expansive and militarily strong China. And that prospect will catapult the US territory of the Marianas into a renewed position of prominence as the forward edge of our Asian Pacific Rim defenses.

The US Naval War College recently conducted war games in which American and Chinese naval forces met in 2005. The Chinese won.

The potential for confrontation with Beijing in the next century is real. Sino-American relations are at their worst in years, as China tests our political will and our economic capability within the Asian Pacific Rim.

Militarily, Beijing is providing Pakistan with nuclear weapons technology and is selling Iran $4.5-billion worth of military arms and assisting in Iran's development of chemical weapons. The Chinese military is also collaborating with the neocommunist Russian military on technology issues. At home, China is developing the advanced F-10 fighter aircraft and ballistic missile defense technology, using techniques stolen from naive American companies. This capability made possible China's advanced ballistic missile tests in international waters last March in a crude attempt to influence Taiwan's presidential election. Additionally, the US Office of Naval Intelligence just reported that those exercises were a "series of rehearsals of a contingency scenario for the invasion of Taiwan."

Further, China is acquiring a "blue water" navy capable of projecting force throughout the Pacific Rim. Indeed, Chinese naval doctrine now advocates an offshore defense posture as opposed to its traditional emphasis on coastal defense. Ominously, the new approach calls for a maritime operational capability encompassing the so-called "second island chain," which includes the Marianas and Guam. Achieving such a capability would dramatically change the Pacific Rim's balance of power.

The interdependent linkage of America's vital strategic and economic interests to the Asian Pacific Rim is beyond question. To protect American military and economic interests in the Asian Pacific Rim , a significant naval presence is essential. As Alfred Thayer Mahan, father of the modern US Navy said, a strong navy is the "midwife of commerce." A naval presence, though, requires bases and the number of options is shrinking rapidly.

The long-established bases in the Philippines are gone, and that is just the start. The recent nonbinding plebiscite in Okinawa presages an eventual eviction of US naval forces. Pressure is mounting to reduce the US presence in Korea. Fortunately, there is an alternative: the Marianas.

Some of the most vicious fighting during World War II was in the Marianas. Once liberated, they provided bases for the submarine warfare that interdicted 80% of Japanese merchant shipping, and for the air campaign against industrial targets on the Japanese mainland. They are America's westernmost possession, ideally placed to guard trade routes throughout the Asian Rim.

A painful lesson of distant deployments to places like Somalia and Rwanda is that once our forces are deployed, their ability to operate can be severely hampered by a lack of local infrastructure. This is not a problem in the Marianas, where rapid economic growth has generated substantial investments and infrastructure.

Saipan, the largest of the three main islands in the chain, has a world-class airport. Tinian, the departure point for the Enola Gay's atomic bomb drop, lies a short distance away and has a large anchorage that could readily be upgraded.

An unholy geopolitical alliance is evolving, with China at its vortex providing manpower, the neocommunists in Russia giving resources and technology and Iran supplying oil. This emerging problem requires a significant naval presence beyond our present worldwide fleet. Basing a portion of our Navy in the Marianas could compensate for that, and even provide an advantage, by putting future foes in check.

Milton R. Copulos, president of the National Defense Council Foundation, was an advisor to the Department of Defense from 1987 to 1989. F. Andy Messing Jr., a former Special Forces officer, is the foundation's executive director.