I had the privilege last month to visit the United States Pacific Command – Camp H.M. Smith – in Hawaii to learn how the military was investing millions of dollars into an experimental renewable energy technology.
Amidst my jet-lagged reverie, it dawned upon me that Uncle Sam has been a protective and stabilising presence in the Pacific for some 55 years after the end of World War II.
I hadn’t always felt this way; the US invasion of Iraq and its other foreign policy decisions in recent, and not so recent, history made me cynical about its benevolence as a superpower.
But seeing how the theatre of the United States Pacific Command stretched from the Maldives in the Indian Ocean then across Australia to Hawaii, covering nearly 60 percent of the world’s population or approximately 272 million square kilometres over 36 countries – with Pearl Harbour a mere 1.6 km from where I was at – made me realise I should be thankful, if not appreciative.
Sometimes you need an experience up-close to remind you of the farthest things on your mind, such as security. I put this down to not having experienced war.
The recent escalation of tension between the two Koreas underscores the importance of the US as a countervailing force in the region.
On Nov 23, North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong island, killing two and injuring 19. Since then, South Korea has stepped up its land and sea military exercises. From Nov 28 to Dec 1, South Korean warships and the George Washington nuclear-powered aircraft carrier took part in naval exercises.
Just last week, South Korea held a land drill in the Pocheon region, between Seoul and the demilitarised zone, and conducted a naval live-firing exercise just 100 km south of the maritime border with North Korea.
China, an ally of North Korea, has been largely muted in its criticism of the hermit kingdom. It, too, has been involved in some territorial skirmishes.
In the past three decades, China has clashed with Vietnam over the Paracel Islands, with the Philippines over the Spratly Islands and, most recently in September, with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands off the northeast coast of Taiwan. China supposedly cut off exports of rare earths – vital for mobiles, laptops and hybrid cars – to Japan over the incident, though it strongly denied this.
Could the next hotspot be the western Pacific, if China becomes a military force to reckon with, as The Economist reported this month? And where does that leave Singapore?
We would still continue to seek greater economic cooperation with China and ride on her growth, though any display of aggressive Chinese nationalism will worry us. My guess is we would still turn to Uncle Sam for security. But where the only constant is change, who knows?
The writer visited the United States and China on a Jefferson Fellowship from the East-West Center.