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Hanabusa: Stability Depends on Presence in the Pacific

For more than a century, the United States has asserted a primary military and economic presence in the Pacific. History has proved the value of that posture. The question today is how our nation will continue to play such a strategic role in light of efforts to reduce military spending.

Within these deliberations, we cannot lose sight of key objectives: ensuring the safety and security of our citizens; training, equipping and protecting our men and women in uniform and supporting economic and strategic relations. Particularly with respect to the Pacific, we must maintain the U.S. capacity to preserve our nation’s vital interests.

The Pacific is undeniably the theater of the future. The Area of Responsibility of the U.S. Pacific Command encompasses about half of the Earth’s surface and the 36 nations that make up the Asia-Pacific region are home to more than 50 percent of the world’s population and three of the world’s largest economies. Five Asia-Pacific nations are allied with the United States through mutual defense treaties.

The view of the Pacific as a vital strategic theater finds acceptance at the highest levels of our government. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently stated, “The U.S. is and always will be a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.”

I stand with Panetta, sharing the view that our commitment to the Pacific is essential; planning must start now to maintain our presence. That is why this past spring I advocated the insertion of language into the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill that would require the secretary of Defense, in conjunction with the PACOM commander, to identify locations within the PACOM Area of Responsibility into which the United States could deploy a forward presence to train and address future contingencies in a quick, decisive manner.

Hawaii continues to serve as our nation’s primary home-soil presence in the Pacific. I have long understood the strategic importance of the state’s status as a forward position for our military in the region. Beyond geography, Hawaii also provides a stable and supportive community. As a leading-edge base of operations in the Pacific, we could do no better, as demonstrated, for example, by the presence of PACOM in the islands.

The Pacific Ocean is the nexus of a wide-ranging geopolitical network linking the region’s diverse nations into a rich, complex system. We cannot underestimate the importance of the area in both strategic and economic terms. A prime example of this is the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, whose conference Hawaii hosted in mid-November. Its members represent three of the top five economies in the world, about 55 percent of the world’s domestic product and 43 percent of world trade.

Our partners throughout the region depend on our continued military presence and naval supremacy to sustain this level of trade and shared prosperity. Economic and social stability rests on strategic security.

As PACOM Commander Adm. Robert F. Willard recently observed, “Increasingly in the 21st century, security in all domains — land, air, space, cyberspace and maritime — will be necessary to enable the freedoms of action that are fundamental to global prosperity in this area.”

As it has been throughout America’s involvement in the Pacific, facilitating the prosperity of the region is critical to our own national prosperity.

Our challenge is to project U.S. military power in the Pacific that will both protect our homeland and enhance strategic and emerging alliances throughout the region. The assistant commandant of the Marine Corps testified, “I think we will assume great risk in regions that are critical to the United States if we are not there, we are not forward deployed, we are not forward engaged, we are not assuring our allies, and we are not deterring our potential foes.”

As we in Congress work with military experts to plan a strategy for the 21st century, we face many hurdles. The security, prosperity and vital interests of the United States are increasingly tied to other countries. This realization has to be the basis for pre-emptive planning and long-term security throughout the Pacific. The effect of missing this opportunity is far greater in the long run than any immediate cost posed now.

Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii) is a member of the Armed Services Committee.

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