Mon, Mar 26, 2018 - Page 4 News List

US military outpost eyes shifting strategic seas

AFP, WAKE ISLAND, United States

US Air Force Captain Marc Bleha speaks to reporters during a visit to Wake Island by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joseph Dunford on Feb. 2.

Photo: AFP

Life on Wake Island seems, much of the time, rather sedate. The blank “Flight Movement” board at this tiny airfield in the middle of the Pacific Ocean promises zero flights and no movement. However, every day or so, a US military plane touches down to refuel or deliver cargo, bringing a burst of activity to one of the world’s most remote places.

The minuscule coral atoll, which pops up unexpectedly from the ocean’s steel-gray expanse, seems an unlikely place to find a permanent military presence. It is located more than 3,500km west of Hawaii and four US troops live here year round.

Thanks to more than a century of military history and a changing power dynamic in the region, this speck of sand and stones will likely continue to pack an outsized strategic punch for America.

“There’s so much honor here on Wake,” US Air Force Captain Marc Bleha said, describing how the island saw one of the first US engagements of World War II when marines repelled a Japanese attack just days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. “It’s humbling to think back ... to when marines were defending the island. They were running from bunker to bunker.”

The Japanese came back days later, reinforced and better organized, and this time they took the island. Several US bunkers and other remnants of the conflict remain largely intact.

The coral beaches, once stained with wartime blood, are now strewn with plastic rubbish, grim evidence that parts of the Pacific have become a gyre of manmade waste. Bleha, who is on a year-long tour overseeing three enlisted men, ensures a permanent military presence on the island. All told, 85 people live here on a semi-permanent basis, contracted in one way or another to keep the island running.

After decades of relative calm across the Pacific region, Wake Island is taking on renewed strategic importance. China is aggressively growing its military and pushing its footprint deeper into the Pacific. Officials like to talk about the US’ Pacific presence as vital for “projecting power” into the region, where rivals like China are writing a narrative that US President Donald Trump and his tariff-imposing, “America First” agenda mean the US no longer cares about what happens there.

“Obviously I reject that,” US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joe Dunford told reporters traveling with him following a visit to Wake Island last month. “If you look at the health of our alliances in the region ... the evidence reflects anything other than a decline in Pacific power. We have enduring interests here, we have enduring commitment and an enduring presence in the Pacific.”

That presence is visible across the region, including on Wake and Guam — located 2,414km further west — and at a string of US bases in Japan, South Korea and elsewhere.

Wake Island also plays a key role in the US’ efforts to block a ballistic missile attack from countries such as North Korea. The US Missile Defense Agency uses the atoll to test its missile-interceptor systems designed to smash into a rocket headed toward US soil.

Dunford’s Pacific trip came on the heels of other visits by senior Trump administration officials, including US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, then-US secretary of state Rex Tillerson and Trump himself.

During his brief visit to Wake Island, Dunford, a US Marine Corps four-star general, paid his respects at a small monument to the US marines and sailors killed during Japan’s invasion and occupation.

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