Viewpoint: Rediscovering the Pacific

Twenty years or so ago, there was, to my certain and daily knowledge, a brass telescope in the office of the Commander in Chief Pacific — then, as now, an admiral. CINCPAC’s telescope remained fixed on Pearl Harbor, perhaps as a symbol of Pacific maritime strategy. As a lunchtime tennis player, it was my misfortune to have the courts in the telescope’s line of vision. The admiral thought reading messages, not tennis, a proper noontime diversion. On occasion, he reminded me of our different priorities via a Marine runner.

Anyway those were the days of our unquestioned supremacy in the Pacific. SEATO, a pale version of NATO, was still carrying out the charade of contingency plans and solemn alliance meetings because the United States wanted it that way and the United States held most of the cards. Red China was the agreed-upon threat, and Japan scarcely entered the calculations. Vietnam was just beginning to attract our attention. It would be years before that venture would destroy the illusion of American dominance and invincibility in the Pacific.

After the Vietnam pullout, the United States turned back to its NATO obligations with an audible sigh of relief. NATO had been neglected during the Vietnam years; the Pacific could now be neglected. President Carter scheduled a cutback in Korea and was only dissuaded by the military facts of life, Taiwan became a diplomatic outcast, and Mr. Carter’s State Department seemed unaware of the value of our Philippine bases. As if to emphasize the declining importance of the Pacific basin, the post of Commander in Chief, Pacific Air Forces, was reduced from four to three stars a mistake only recently corrected.

Meanwhile, the Soviets were on the move. Cam Ranh Bay and Da Nang became Soviet bases, thus giving the USSR unprecedented leverage in the South China Sea. Indonesia and the strategic Strait of Malacca lie to the south and the Philippines to the east, within easy reach. It is worth remembering that an early World War II British naval disaster, the sinking off the Malay coast of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, was inflicted by Japanese airplanes based in Saigon.

Land-based air remains a decisive factor in that part of the world, and the Soviets now have a distinct advantage. Not only do they have our former Vietnamese strongholds, but Vietnam itself has the most formidable air force in Southeast Asia, complete with a fine base structure, radar sites, and a generous inheritance of American equipment together with people the US trained to use it.

Our old friends the Thais are worried about their aggressive neighbor, as well they should be. The Pentagon has promised additional aid, to include a few more F-5Es, an air defense system, and various other items, but Thailand’s principal asset is the base structure we created. Any serious move by Vietnam against Thailand would require US help; deploying air to Thailand would be easy and quick.

Until now, Japan has avoided any serious defense outlay, thanks to Article 9 of its US-devised constitution. There is mounting pressure on Japan to interpret Article 9 — which limits Japanese armament to that needed for self-defense — more liberally. Self-defense in this era might include such things as defending the oil routes on which Japan is wholly dependent, but it will not be easy to overcome a deep-seated Japanese aversion to increased military activity. For this reason, the Self-Defense Forces, so called because of Article 9, have been inconspicuous on the Japanese scene since their creation in the 1950s. The mission continues to be self-defense in its narrowest definition, despite an air force — sorry, an Air Self-Defense Force — with more than 300 aircraft, including F-4s and F-15s. As matters now stand, the United States is obliged to defend Japan, but Japan has no obligation, or even the right, to aid the United States in other areas.

Then there is Taiwan, our almost forgotten ally and onetime bastion when we worried about Red China. United States policy at present appears to be one of gradual withdrawal, in the hope, presumably, that time will take care of things. The face remains that Taiwan, by whatever name, is essential to any coherent western Pacific strategy. If it were only an island inhabited by backward natives, it would be essential, but because it is one of the most successful small nations, with a population of 20,000,000 industrious and literate people, Taiwan becomes doubly important. How to reconcile the absolute strategic essentiality of Taiwan with the problem of closer ties to Peking is a puzzlement. But as an incentive to do the puzzling, imagine a Taiwan turned, in exasperation, toward the USSR.

The vast area we call the Pacific is becoming increasingly important to America’s trade and is, one way or another, the source of new additions to United States citizenry. Along with Central America, the Pacific is beginning to contest Europe for Uncle Sam’s attention. It is a worry to Europeans, this United States distraction with matter other than NATO.

The Grenada expedition, for instance, put a severe strain on our ties with Britain and gained no applause from our European allies, despite the clear justification for the action. In Britain’s case, the pique — fury seems a more exact word to describe Mrs. Thatcher’s emotional state — may be ascribed to a lack of consultation. However, for the other European allies, Grenada was worrisome evidence that the United States has other things on its mind besides European defense.