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Thursday 28 April 2016 | Published in Regional


PACIFIC REPORT By Ben Bohane ABC Correspondent

Watching the tourists with their flamingo inflatables lolling on the sparkling sea and white sand of Guam, with large resorts in the background, you would be forgiven for thinking this little island in the north Pacific is a mini-Honolulu.

It is after all, a tropical playground for Japanese and Siberian Russians who have escaped their deep winter freeze.

But beyond the duty-free designer shops and paddleboards, Guam has a vital strategic role for the US that is currently being significantly boosted.

American military commanders call it their “permanent aircraft carrier” and “Pacific spear tip” pointed variously at China, Russia and North Korea.

While international attention is often captured by US military operations in the Middle East, for the past decade, Guam has quietly been the location of what the US assistant secretary for the navy, B.J. Penn, called “the largest project that the Department of Defence has ever attempted”.

About US$20 billion is being spent on establishing a marine base and upgrading existing bases including the Andersen Air Force Base and the naval base around Apra Harbour.

Guam also hosts an increasing number of B52 bombers and jet fighters, and its upgraded ports will soon be able to accommodate more submarines and destroyers.

The US regularly flies its B52s on training missions over the South China Sea, which is now the site of aggressive Chinese territorial expansion.

Situated north-east of the Philippines, Guam and the Marianna Islands have long been used by Washington as its forward base in the north-west Pacific. It is in easy striking distance of Asia and provides a regional transport hub for the rest of Micronesia.

“Guam has been part of the United States since 1898. Apart from a brief period during WW2, when it was occupied by the Japanese, this has been a US territory,” Navy Commander Dan Schaan told me at Apra Harbour.

“It has always been important to US national policy as a strategic presence in the region. The mission is in support of national strategy so we create prosperity, stability and security in the region, not only for the US but for our partners and allies,” he said.

But there are other anxieties at play, such as the growing military sophistication of China and North Korea, particularly the speed and range of their ballistic missiles, which has effectively shortened the response time for US forces on the ground in Japan and Korea.

Guam’s location allows for more warning, a key consideration that has also driven the deployment of US marines in Darwin, allowing an even greater warning buffer.

“The considerations that were given to the rebalancing follow the line of thinking of having a distributed lay down, of having forces in various locations but still in the proximity of potential contingencies as well as maintaining a stable presence with our partners and allies in the region,” Commander Schaan said.

“That’s why we call it a rebalance, as opposed to a pivot.”

Almost a third of Guam is directly controlled by the US military and it conducts regular training operations in the nearby Marianna Islands.

One of the group, Tinian, is where the Enola Gay, the Boeing B-29 Super Fortress bomber, took off on one August morning in 1945 to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Today, Guam acts as a staging post for operations as far away as Afghanistan.

Guam’s indigenous Chamorro people worry it will be a major target in any regional hostilities, a future Pearl Harbour.

Another issue that rankles some locals, especially veterans, is that they cannot vote in the US presidential elections even though they are American citizens.

Since the build-up was announced, the marine deployment has been scaled down.

However, the infrastructure commitment remains and the tempo of naval and air force activities has increased.

“Predominately what has changed is the numbers and composition of what is deployed to Guam,” Commander Schaan said.

“Originally it was 8600 marines, that has been reduced to 5000 marines.

“Originally there was going to be 9000 dependents and that number has now been reduced to 1300. So it is a significant reduction in the number of dependents relocated here.

“That is a result of the composition of forces being relocated here and instead of being a permanent presence it is more of a rotational presence.

“Also what has changed is the duration for the build-up. Originally it was planned to happen over a seven-year period.

“Now to address the concerns of Guam’s citizens and leadership, that construction will occur over a 13-year period – so it is more levelled and it is over a longer period of time and creates less impact on Guam and its infrastructure.” - ABC