WASHINGTON – The U.S. military is encircling China with a chain of air bases and military ports. The latest link: a small airstrip on the tiny Pacific island of Saipan. The U.S. Air Force is planning to lease 33 acres on the island for the next 50 years to build a “divert airfield” on an old World War II air base there. But the residents don’t want it. And the Chinese are in no mood to be surrounded by Americans.
The Pentagon’s big, new strategy for the 21st century is called Air-Sea Battle, a concept that’s nominally about combining air and naval forces to punch through the formidable defenses of nations like China or Iran.
A very concrete part of this concept is being put into place in the Pacific.
An important but often-overlooked part of Air-Sea Battle calls for the military to operate from small, bare bones bases in the Pacific that its forces can disperse to in case their main bases are targeted by Chinese ballistic missiles.
Saipan would be used by American jets in case access to the U.S. super base at Guam “or other Western Pacific airfields is limited or denied,” reads an Air Force document on the impact that building such fields on Saipan and nearby Tinian would have on the environment there.
Saipan residents want the Air Force to use the historic air bases on Tinian, which the U.S. Marines are already refurbishing and flying F/A-18 Hornet fighters out of, on an occasional basis.
The Air Force wants to expand the Saipan International Airport – built on the skeleton of a World War II base used by Japan and later the United States – to accommodate cargo, fighter and tanker aircraft along with up to 700 support personnel for “periodic divert landings, joint military exercises, and joint and combined humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts,” according to Air Force documents.
The Air Force plans to build additional aircraft parking space, hangars, fuel storage tanks and ammunition storage facilities, as well as other improvements to the historic airfield.
It also plans to send aircraft on regular deployments to bases ranging from Australia to India as part of its bulked up force in the Pacific.
The Saipan announcement comes as Chinese defense minister, Gen. Chang Wanquan, visited Washington to talk with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. The topic of U.S. bases in the Pacific didn’t come up during a joint news conference they held Wednesday, but Wanquan said in response to a question about the U.S. military focus on the Pacific that “China is a peace-loving nation, and we hope that [America’s] strategy does not target a specific country in the region.”
While the U.S. insists Air-Sea Battle and the pivot to Asia isn’t about China, these bases are a check against Chinese expansion into the Pacific, said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “China will be much more discreet throughout the entire region because U.S. power is already there, it’s visible; you’re not talking theory, you’re already there in practice,” he said.