Notes from this theater of war

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

PEARL HARBOR – On one edge of this bustling harbor in the heart of the Pacific, overlooking Battleship Missouri and the USS Arizona Memorial, a historic moment for the United States Indo-Pacific Command (Indo-Pacom) unfolded on Friday morning last week under the warm Hawaiian sun.

Indo-Pacom, the US’s oldest and largest combatant command, officially installed its 27th Commander, US Navy Admiral Samuel Paparo, succeeding Adm. John Aquilino, who is retiring after more than 40 years in service.

This US naval base here in Hawaii holds deep in its heart memories of war – of bombings which ripped through this tropical island of mostly sugar cane plantations on that quiet and idyllic morning of Dec. 7, 1941; of the valiant men and women with steady nerves and brave hearts who responded to that so-called day of infamy and of those who lived it and those who never returned.

I thought of this as I stood in this theater of war – which, once upon a time, was filled with billows of smoke from bombs and blood of dead men.

Indeed, more than 70 years after Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor and plunged the US into World War II, this US naval base may yet bear witness to another global conflict between two super powers, the US and China.

Indo-Pacom, for sure, will be at the forefront of this battle if it erupts.

The festivities jolted me out of my reverie as the US Marine Corps Forces Pacific band played and the ceremony commenced around 10 a.m.

I’m among the journalists invited to cover this change of command ceremony held here at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

Men in crisp white and blue uniforms exchanged greetings of “Aloha,” while some women came in flowing dresses; the locals call it Aloha chic attire. A Hawaii grilled barbeque awaited the hundreds of guests, including military top brass, diplomats and dignitaries from the US and its allies.

The outdoor event seemed to have the blessings of the heavens as clear blue skies served as a backdrop and a gentle Honolulu breeze wafted through the morning.

The national flag of the United States, with its stars and stripes, and the Indo-Pacom’s flag waved with the breeze. A 21-gun salute, a presentation of colors and a traditional Hawaiian blessing performed by a Kahu or spiritual leader added solemnity and dignity to the ceremony, which was presided over by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III.

The vibe seemed straight out of a happy scene from Tom Cruise’s “Top Gun.”

The band played on and yes, there were lots of laughter too, even as Adm. Aquilino teared up when he delivered his farewell message. Overall, the mood was celebratory, a perfect fit to an Aloha Friday.

But as soon as the speeches commenced, the tone turned sharp. And mostly against China.

Sec. Austin minced no words, calling China’s vision as autocratic.

“Unfortunately, the People’s Republic of China continues to engage in increasingly coercive behavior. And we can see that across the Taiwan Strait, in the East and South China Seas, among the Pacific Island countries, along the Line of Actual Control with India and more.

“You know, the PRC is the only country with both the will – and, increasingly, the capacity – to dominate the Indo-Pacific and to reshape the global order to suit its autocratic visionary,” Sec. Austin said.

The US Defense chief added that North Korea, Russia and violent extremist groups also threaten security in the region.

‘Ready to fight’

Adm. Paparo’s tone was likewise sharp and firm. “Our world faces a complex problem set in the troubling actions of the People’s Republic of China and its rapid buildup of forces.”

What he said afterwards was even more serious: “We must be ready to answer PRC’s increasingly intrusive and expansionist claims in the Indo-Pacific region.”

In all, he said Indo-Pacom, together with its partners, is positioned to defend against attempts to break the peace in the region.

“We’ll strive for the peaceful resolution of any crisis, but make no mistake, we will be ready to fight any adversary that threatens the peace, security and well-being of the nation and all our allies and partners,” Adm. Paparo said.

Against this backdrop, Adm. Aquilino said he can sleep soundly knowing that “Adm. Paparo is at the controls.”

“[This command is] the best of the best, in the most crucial theater, against the most challenging threat,” he also said.

What does this mean for the Philippines?

It was an experience to witness this historic change of command because it comes at a crucial time for the Philippines, which is currently caught in conflict with China over disputed seas.

What happens next is anybody’s guess.

Some Filipinos here and in Manila are anxious over the possibility that a war may erupt in the Indo-Pacific. I fervently hope it doesn’t happen.

But China has not started a major war in 44 years, a February 2024 Foreign Policy article pointed out. Still, the absence of war has not meant the absence of aggression.

On Sunday here, I visited Battleship Missouri and onboard, there’s a memorabilia with the words of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, spoken at the end of World War II. He hoped that “a better world emerges out of the blood and carnage of the past.”

And there lies the question we must all answer. Do we really live in a better world today than yesterday?

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Email: [email protected]. Follow her on X, formerly Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at EyesWideOpen (Iris Gonzales) on Facebook.

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