Amid a new national security agreement with Japan, and a “contest of wills” in the South China Sea, the Marine Forces Pacific look to build a forward presence in the region as a deterrent to aggression in the Pacific.
Live-firing ranges in the Northern Marinas, together with military presence in Guam, Australia, and elsewhere in the Pacific, demonstrates this forward presence, according to MARFORPAC executive director Craig Whelden.
Congress has yet to fund the MARFORPAC project in the CNMI, though. That would come with a deadline, it was learned. This could go to the construction of the firing ranges or the lease purchases on Tinian or Pagan.
Whelden told Saipan Tribune that there have been frequent “congressional interest” in their plans in the CNMI but they have not gone as far as lease talks yet.
“Over the course of the last two years, we’ve had a number of staffers and a number of congressmen and senators who have come through,” he said.
“And we have told them about the studies we are doing for the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas joint training [environmental impact statement]—but because it’s a study and no conclusions have been made yet, I think they are waiting for us to come to a conclusion before we go to that next step.”
“There is not that much overlap between congressional decisions related to this and the studies. We need to get through the studies. And the course of the studies will take us probably into next summer,” he told Saipan Tribune.
There are “42 unfulfilled training requirements” in the Pacific region, according to Whelden.
He told reporters on Tinian that establishing a training facility on Tinian helps address a national security concern.
“The President of the United States has made clear that there has been a shift to the Pacific in terms of focus strategically. There are number of indications on how we are doing that. One of them is the Secretary of Defense has directed the Marine Corps to maintain a forward presence in the region. We have over 22,000 Marines west of the international dateline and we plan to maintain that forward presence. That forward presence is a deterrent to other adversaries that might think about doing some things that otherwise they very well do.”
“The South China Sea is being contested, if not daily, certainly weekly,” he said. “All these contests of will in the South China Sea—between them, the Filipinos, the Japanese, and other countries are putting the area at some risk. …Having a forward presence…demonstrates the will of the United States to be here for our friends, our allies,” he said.
When asked to unpack what he meant by training requirements, he tied it all to “national security.”
“It’s all related to national security,” he said. “Marines, soldiers, airmen, and sailors need to train regularly…skills atrophy. Over time, we have determined that certain tasks must be done at the individual level, the collective level, and a larger level in order to maintain combat readiness and proficiency.
“The training regimen that we might do here in the Commonwealth are designed around the requirement to have those Marines be trained and ready,” he said.
Last week, the United States and Japan announced a new pact aimed at overhauling the two countries’ security arrangements, The Wall Street Journal reports.
The Journal reports these new guidelines—called Joint Defense Guidelines—will “remove any geographic limits on the Japanese forces, allowing Japan’s military—with permission of its parliament—to participate in defense operations around the globe.”
The Northern Marinas, Tinian in particular, has played a role in these U.S.-Japanese relations.
According to CNMI historian Don Farrell in a recent column in the Saipan Tribune, this role goes back all the way to 1972.
President Richard Nixon’s 1969 decision to re-open relations with the People’s Republic of China required an end to the Vietnam War, Farrell wrote. To maintain the integrity of the U.S.-Japan security alliance—“the backbone of peace in the Pacific since World War II”—Nixon agreed to return Iwo Jima and Okinawa to Japan, Farrell said.
This required a fallback base for troops stationed in Okinawa, to ensure the new facility would be located on “sovereign American soil,” he wrote.
The U.S. offered citizenship and maximum self-government under the U.S Constitution to the people of the Northern Marianas in return for a lease on two-thirds of Tinian. B-52s would be relocated to North Field, with Marine training ranges in the south.
But before the Covenant was signed, Nixon pulled out of Vietnam, Farrell wrote. Regardless, the CNMI was born, Congress found no reason to fund the construction of the Tinian base, and Tinian remained undeveloped.