Guam on the frontline of a looming conflict
By Frank Whitman
As community concern grows over whether tensions between China and the United States will lead to a military conflict that would likely involve Guam, students in an administrative law graduate class at the University of Guam hosted the forum “Understanding the Taiwan Crisis: Its Impact on Guam and the Region” at UOG on May 6.
“The threat in the Taiwan crisis is the militarization of the potential conflict instead of looking for diplomatic solutions. The world has never seen a conflict between two nuclear powers,” said Leland Bettis, board member of Pacific Center for Island Security. “In Guam, we are on the front lines of that conflict. We are going to be among the first targeted if that conflict happens.”
Bettis was among the seven panel members who offered a range of perspectives on the possibility of war and their understanding of the government’s plans to address the safety and welfare of Guam residents.
Bettis provided the most comprehensive, if somewhat controversial, overview of the current crisis. PCIS is a Guam-based think tank seeking “to provide independent analysis of the foreign policy and military-strategic activities between and among the actors in the emerging great power competition in the Asia-Pacific region.”
The current crisis – the fourth in a series of such crises since World War II - is a “struggle between a rising power, China, that seeks long-term power and benefits, and the dominant power in the region, which is the United States that seeks to preserve the status quo,” Bettis said. “In this competition, the United States is simply too big and too powerful for China to control or to change. Similarly, and increasingly, China is too big and too powerful for the U.S. to change or control.”
Bettis said he does not believe either China or the U.S. wants armed conflict. “It doesn’t make sense,” he said. But increased militarization in the region makes conflict more likely. “The problem is simply missing the cues of each other and having a conflict that escalates without intention.”
He noted that over the years, China has not wavered in its contention that Taiwan is rightfully part of China, but U.S. strength in the region prevented unification by force. “However, as China’s strength has increased, all that really stands in Beijing’s way is U.S. deterrence efforts in the region,” Bettis said. “When you hear U.S. officials talk about imminent war in Taiwan, it suggests that they’re not that confident in how deterrence really works.”
Would the U.S. military evacuate its personnel from Guam should war become imminent as it did prior to the Japanese attack in World War II?
Capt. Michael Smith, chief of staff at Joint Region Marianas, said it would not. “As far as defending Guam, it’s a U.S. territory; it’s our homeland. We’re here to stay,” he said.
Clynton Ridgell, deputy chief of staff at the Office of the Governor, believes that the U.S. would not abandon Guam again. “After World War II, the U.S. realized it was much more costly to regain the islands in the Pacific than it would have been to keep them in the first place,” he said.
“They would not put so much money into a missile defense system unless they were really serious about protecting their assets here,” Ridgell said, referring to a missile defense system currently under consideration that is to provide 360-degree protection from cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and the most recent innovation, hypersonic missiles.
Bettis, however, questioned both the accuracy of the missile defense system and the U.S. commitment to protecting Guam civilians. “We’re talking about the protection of Guam,” he said, “It’s not happening. Where are the shelters?”
Smith responded that the Department of Homeland Security and civil authorities are responsible for disaster preparation. “That’s why you’re not going to see DoD building bomb shelters out in town,” he said. “That doesn’t happen in Wyoming, doesn’t happen in California, that doesn’t happen in Florida, and it’s not going to happen in Guam.”
Guam Sen. Chris Barnett replied that it wouldn’t happen in any of the states. “You don’t do this in a state, you do it in territories that don’t have the adequate amount of self-governance to vet and prevent these types of situations,” he said. “We’re an innocent bystander in this and I’m not comfortable sitting here listening to a top military brass say, ‘Hey, guess what, in the event of an attack you’re on your own.’”
Ridgell noted that the current guidance in the event of an attack is to shelter in place since the population would have less than 14 minutes to find a shelter, and Guam has many reinforced concrete structures, including most homes, that would provide protection similar to most bomb shelters.
Ronald McNinch-Su, associate professor at UOG, said he sees food security as a more likely threat to Guam’s civilian population than a nuclear attack. “I think (the threat) is not being able to feed our population because we have supply chain issues,” he said. He recommends Guam residents keep a one- to two-year supply of nonperishable goods in their house “and rotate them just for the purpose of being able to supply themselves in times of crisis.”
Clarence Lagutang, capital improvement projects manager at Port Authority of Guam, said the port is in the process of implementing its recently completed master plan to upgrade its facilities with the threat in mind. “We’ve had a lot of discussion with DoD in helping us to become more resilient and modernizing our port to better serve our people and DoD and the region,” he said. “The port now is shifting from modernization mode to resiliency and readiness mode.”
Paul Yin-Lien Chen, director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, pointed out the relative normalcy of life in Taiwan even during the current crisis. He acknowledged the ongoing Chinese military drills around Taiwan, the extension of compulsory military service from four months to one year and Taiwan’s consultation with U.S. military advisors. “But if you visit Taiwan, you would see that Taiwanese are not panicked,” he said. “We have a normal life; every day is prosperous, everyone is happy. But we are ready for any possible threat.”’