From Guam to great
18 July 2012
The World Security Network Foundation's Asia Editor Balaji Chandramohan charts the history of the US Guam Doctrine, and the significance of the 21st Century version
In 1971, when President of the United States, Richard Nixon's trip to China attracted media attention that is now forever a part of the annals of history; however, his trip to Guam Island near Indonesia is often forgotten.
Indeed it was Nixon's trip to Guam that defined the US military role in the Asia Pacific for the next successive presidents until the present Obama administration.
Nixon's doctrine, or the popular so-called Guam Doctrine, envisaged that:
• First, the US will keep all of its treaty commitments;
• Second, it will provide a shield if a nuclear power threatens the freedom of an allied nation or of a nation whose survival is considered vital to US security;
• Third, in cases involving other types of aggression, it shall furnish military and economic assistance when requested in accordance with treaty commitments. But it shall look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defence.
The treaty commitments of the US in the Pacific include:
• ANZUS Treaty with Australia and New Zealand 1951;
• Taiwan-America Mutual Defense Treaty 1954;
• US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty 1951.
The US base on the island of Guam, along with the Pacific Command in Hawaii, ensure the safety of the countries in the Asia Pacific and enable the US to carry out the treaty commitments if countries are threatened by aggression. Guam has two important US military bases: the Apra Naval Base and Andersen Air Force Base.
If the Guam Doctrine could be defined in one sentence, it envisaged that the US would not send armed men for land wars into Asia unless the situation direly demanded it, as was the case in the Gulf War 1991. The doctrine was a paradigm shift in the US strategy towards Asia, as it came in the wake of the failures in the Vietnam War.
However, with the end of the Cold War and with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq coming to a closure, the US strategic thinking is shifting, keeping in view China's rise as both a land and a maritime power.
Although President Obama hasn't visited the island of Guam to contemplate a doctrine, if his recent trips to the Asia Pacific countries such as South Korea, India, Indonesia and Australia are any indication, it clearly shows that the US has envisaged a policy towards Asia Pacific through military diplomacy.
Further, the US has decided to shift much of its resources from the Okinawa Island in Japan to Guam, thereby strengthening the existing base facilities and having a 'forward presence' in the Asia Pacific. The plan for strengthening the Guam base was in fact the brain child of the George W Bush administration, with a vision to contain China in the Asia Pacific. This was done through the US-Japan Realignment Roadmap of 2006, which envisaged strengthening the base at Guam with relocation from Okinawa. It is to be noted that the US Secretary of Defense in the Bush administration, Robert Gates, was retained in the Obama administration from 2009-2011.
As a part of the strengthening exercise, it is believed that the US base in Guam will have an air and missile defence taskforce with 10,552 US marines aimed from the year 2017 at a cost of $15bn, as per the assertions made by Shirley A Kan, a specialist in the Asian Security Affairs to the US Congressional Research Service. Further options for strengthening the base in Guam include having a second Amphibious Ready Group with navy ships to transport a marine expeditionary unit.
The paradigm shift in the US strategic thinking towards Asia Pacific could be called the 21st Century Guam Doctrine. At present, the US spends US$12bn on the Guam base, and this is likely to increase further. After Nixon's trip there, the Guam base started to attract attention in Australia, influencing the country's strategic policy, which was reflected in subsequent white papers.
The Guam Doctrine assumed more significance when the US decided to pull its troops out of Vietnam, which meant every Australian defence white paper since 1976 had been a part of the post-Guam Doctrine. The case of Australia assumes significance related to the new Guam Doctrine, as other than India and Japan, no country has assumed the tag of an aspiring Great Power that can check China's spheres of influence in the Asia Pacific. That is precisely the reason why the US has decided to court Australia by assuring conventional support to its deterrence in the Guam Doctrine II, a marked departure from the Guam Doctrine I.
Obama's trip to Australia coincided with the 60th year of the Australia, New Zealand and the United States Treaty. From this year, it is understood that the US will support Australia's strategic objectives and will try to find solutions to Australia's strategic dilemmas, even the conventional ones if necessary. Visiting Australia on 16th November, the US President announced that 2,500 marines will deploy on a rotational basis to Australia's Darwin Base, and that the US Air Force will rotate more aircraft to Australia.
On the other hand, Australia's emergence as a regional power in the Asia Pacific with an aspiring Great Power status is beyond doubt. And part of the credit has to go to the Guam Doctrine. Australia's strategic thinking was influenced by the belief that unless there was an explicit nuclear threat, the US would not be a strategic ally. This also has to be understood within the context that during the 1960s phase of the doctrine, Britain had withdrawn its troops from the East of the Suez Canal. Therefore, Australia had to follow the policy of strategic self-reliance for conventional battles.
The ability of Australia to undertake operations in East Timor even under a multilateral umbrella was possible because of strategic self-reliance. This power was understood by the US in proposing the new Guam Doctrine, which means that the US will form new alliance partners in the Asia Pacific with it being the cog with the spokes such as Australia, India, Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea, Japan and Indonesia.
President Obama has visited all the aforementioned countries and has taken on board the need for these countries to have a bigger strategic umbrella in the US to deter China from taking any ambitious plans in the Asia Pacific. That is Guam Doctrine II.