China is aggressively attempting to expand influence among Pacific Island Countries (PIC) like Kiribati by negotiating security deals on the lines of its pact with the Solomon Islands. However, less than 2000 miles from Kiribati lies the US state of Hawaii.
The US Congress had announced that the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) wanted to get radar installed in Hawaii to protect the territory from ballistic missiles by the end of 2028, according to the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act released last year.
However, in a shocking development, Hawaii’s Congressional delegation backed away from a nearly $2 billion missile defense radar after years of fighting in support of the project — first on Oahu, then on Kauai, local media Honolulu Civil Beat reported.
This would mean that the plans may be shelved at a time when security risks are running high with China expanding in the Pacific.
Senator Mazie Hirono, who has pushed for the proposed Homeland Defense Radar – Hawaii has now refused to walk the talk.
Hirono’s office stated that she had changed her mind. Her office said that she met the leaders from the Department of Defense, the Missile Defense Agency, and the United States Indo-Pacific Command in recent months and that they “for the first time, have jointly concluded that a more comprehensive next-generation system is necessary” to protect the state.
Hirono was not the only one to backtrack from the promise of getting state funding for the radar. Sen. Brian Schatz said in a statement he too would no longer be supporting the radar system.
“Based on new and ongoing assessments, there seem to be better, more effective ways to protect Hawaii from missile attacks without this program,” he said.
Congress wants the Missile Defense Agency to get a radar installed in Hawaii that can protect the homeland from ballistic missiles by the end of 2028, according to the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act released this week.
— Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance (@MissileDefAdv) December 10, 2021
US Representative Kai Kahele, who previously stated that the radar should be built on Kauai, in his district, rather than Oahu, has also withdrawn his support for the proposal. So did Representative Ed Case, who represents urban Honolulu and had lent support for the radar in the past.
These reversals, shocking as they are, come at a time when China’s growing expansion in the region has necessitated a rethink of defenses of the US territory.
For example, the MDA has proposed a layered missile defense system to protect Guam from hostile ballistic and hypersonic missile attacks, Air Force Magazine noted. Guam’s proximity to China makes it a strategic territory for the US.
Surprisingly, the Homeland Defense Radar-Hawaii (HDR-H) has not received similar attention over the years. Hawaii, known as the crossroads of the Pacific, is strategically important to the global defense system of the US. It also lies astride the sea lanes of communication connecting North America with Australia.
Hawaii Is Undefended?
MDA budget request proposal for FY19 and FY20 vouched for the financing for the Hawaiian radar. In FY19, the intention was to launch the HDR-H by FY23, which meant that military construction would have started in FY21. MDA then proposed $247.7 million for the radar in FY20.
However, the FY21 request did not include funds for the Hawaiian radar. MDA Director Vice Adm. Jon Hill said last year that the agency had then decided to put the radars in the Pacific on hold, instead opting to look at the sensor architecture in the Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) region to examine what was needed to deal with evolving threats- a covert reference to China.
In 2020, the funding was abruptly suspended.
Forward-deployed AN/TPY-2 radar in Hawaii, as well as the deployable Sea-Based X-Band radar, covers the area, according to Hill. Aegis ships, with their radars, are also mobile and may be shifted as needed to deal with threats in the short term, he noted. However, this US territory that houses its military facilities does not have a dedicated missile defense system of its own.
Following the announcement of the FY22 budget request, INDOPACOM’s commander placed the HDR-H fourth on his unfunded requirements “wish list” delivered to Hill last year.
The appropriators had requested an additional $41 million for the Homeland Defense Radar-Hawaii, or HDR-H, in their version of the FY22 defense funding plan.
The Pentagon has debated the project frequently and at one point even cut financing for it owing to concerns about its strategic value and some difficulties in identifying a place. However, residents and climate activists have welcomed the reversal of position by Senators, Civil Beat informed.
Even though the previous largesse for radar in Hawaii was based on the premise that the wider Indo-Pacific region warranted more attention, the latest position of Hawaiian lawmakers comes at a time when China is challenging the status quo in the Pacific and courting Pacific Island Countries (PICs).
China Not Factored In By Lawmakers?
In April, China’s Foreign Ministry had confirmed the signing of a security agreement with the Solomon Islands which according to ‘leaked documents’ would allow Beijing to send soldiers to defend Chinese workers and important projects funded by it in the Solomon Islands.
China would be able to send armed police, military personnel, and other law enforcement organizations to the island nation. There is also a provision for China to make ship trips to the Solomon Islands for logistical replenishment and to conduct stopovers and transitions.
Even though it recently denied that it intended to build a military base in the Solomon Islands, the fears could not be ruled out.
The security pact and the potential for China to spring up a military base just about 2,000 kilometers (1242 miles) from Australia had caused widespread fears and angry retaliation from both, Australia and the United States. A similar story could be unfolding in Kiribati, near the US territory of Hawaii.
One US official said that China had set its sights on Kiribati for some time, as previously noted by EurAsian Times. “They’ve had on-and-off discussions on this, not just for months but for years,” said the official, who added that Beijing was trying to establish “strategic perches” on Pacific island nations.
Kiribati is only 3000 kilometers from Hawaii, the headquarters of the US Indo-Pacific Command, potentially placing the Chinese military closer to US forces in the region. China is already collaborating with Kiribati to improve an airstrip built by the Americans during WWII on the archipelago’s Kanton Island.
“The island would be a fixed aircraft carrier,” an adviser to Pacific governments had told Reuters on condition of anonymity because of the project’s sensitivity.
Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi are set to embark on his official visit to Kiribati on Friday. If a secret security pact is under the works with the island state, it could come as an all-new headache for an unprotected Hawaii.