Nov. 12—Oahu is the nerve center for U.S. military operations in the region and money has flooded in for defense contracts as training operations have ramped up in the islands. But it's not just bombs and bullets.
As the United States seeks to deepen alliances and investments across the Pacific amid tense relations with China, diplomats and military commanders throughout the region are holding constant meetings and conversations. Conferences in the nation's capital frequently ask big questions about America's "pivot to the Pacific " as commentators in the beltway weigh in on developments in Asia and the Pacific islands.
But while much of the national media's attention centers on conversations and intrigue in the halls of Washington, to understand American foreign policy, as the United States refines its approach to the Pacific, it's Honolulu that has become an increasingly important hub for leaders, diplomats and policy analysts from around the world hoping to shape that policy in what some have called "the Pacific Century."
Oahu is the nerve center for U.S. military operations in the region and money has flooded in for defense contracts as training operations have ramped up in the islands. But it's not just bombs and bullets.
Camp Smith, home of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, also has a State Department office. In January, the base hosted the 2023 U.S. Regional Ambassadors Conference, bringing together America's top diplomats in the Indo-Pacific to discuss their strategies for forging closer ties and de-escalating conflicts around the region.
Across Honolulu, international policy think-tanks have been receiving steady federal funding and raking in money from big donors. Analysts from the East-West Center in Manoa, Pacific Forum in downtown Honolulu and the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Waikiki have been traveling the Pacific conducting research and hosting top officials from around the region at their offices.
In October, officials met at the East-West Center for the long-anticipated signing of a new 20-year extension of the Compact of Free Association agreements between the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the United States. Marshall Islands President David Kabua, who is a University of Hawaii at Manoa graduate, was among those present. Gov. Josh Green and U.S. Rep. Ed Case also attended.
"As long as we accept the our role in leading this world in the Indo-Pacific, which is I think our natural destiny, we can look forward to these institutions strengthening our synergy between them to more contribution to our local economy, " Case told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. "The sheer breadth and number of institutions here is largely unknown to many people. But when you start to add it up, and you start to see the synergies across those institutions, it's a pretty powerful net effort."
Key diplomatic post Today eight countries maintain formal diplomatic outposts in Hawaii, and many others have appointed honorary consuls in the islands. The consulates and their staffs see to the affairs of their countries' citizens in the islands, but also host dignitaries from their countries during visits.
They are also some of their country's representatives most in touch with top U.S. military commanders in the Pacific, and many consulates in Hawaii also host fully staffed military attache offices.
Hong Seok-in, who served two years as South Korea's consul general in Honolulu before returning to Seoul this summer, came to Hawaii from a senior position at the South Korean embassy in Washington. When he was first reassigned to the islands, he said he initially thought that he had been demoted. He told the Star-Advertiser that in earlier times the consulate in Honolulu was thought of as a low-stakes job, mostly dealing with South Korean tourists with visa problems.
"When I heard the telephone call from my colleague in Seoul saying that I need to go to Honolulu, my first feeling was disappointment, " he admitted. "Why should I go to a tourist destination ? I'm not a tourist. But after I arrived, I realized that Honolulu is such an important place to watch what's going on—yesterday, today and tomorrow."
In addition to holding regular meetings with senior U.S. military leaders and supporting visiting South Korean officials, Hong and his staff regularly met with officials from the other consulates across Honolulu discussing regional security and looking for converging interests. He said that Hawaii, because of its central location in the Pacific, is an ideal place for those discussions.
"Those are regarded as critical diplomatic posts, " said Case. "Those people are coming from top spots and they're going back to top spots for the most accomplished diplomats in their countries. (Hawaii is ) easily more important than diplomatic postings to many countries themselves around the world."
"As soon as Korean politicians and higher military officials come to Hawaii, I tell them, 'If you come to Hawaii, you can see the Pacific, '" said Hong. "Korea is, to be frank, overwhelmed by the threat of North Korea. So when you go to Washington, D.C., there is the audience to deal with North Korea only. But if you come to Hawaii, you can have another eye to see what's going on here."
Hawaii has long been a meeting place for voyagers, diplomats, business people and others from both sides of the Pacific. Since the days of the Hawaiian kingdom, the meetings held and relationships established here have shaped world history.
Sun Yat-sen—the Chinese revolutionary who led the overthrew of the Qing dynasty and is regarded as the "father of modern China " by the governments in both Beijing and Taipei—moved to Hawaii at the age of 13 in 1878, where his older brother Sun Mei was working as a rice merchant and shopkeeper on Oahu. Sun Yat-sen would graduate from 'Iolani School before continuing his education in Hong Kong. Sun Mei moved to Maui where he opened the Kahului General Store and leased thousands of acres to establish the Sun Mei Ranch.
Later, after Sun Yat-sen's participation in a failed attempt to overthrow the Qing dynasty, he and his family went into exile and returned to Hawaii to live on his brother's Maui property. Hawaii became a hotbed for Chinese revolutionary organizing, with Chinese businesses and groups across the islands raising money to support Sun Yat-sen's fight against the Qing dynasty until it was finally toppled in 1911.
The islands also became a destination for Korean revolutionaries fleeing imperial Japan's occupation of the Korean Peninsula and became a hotbed for the Korean independence movement. One of those exiled revolutionaries, Syngman Rhee, would become South Korea's controversial first president.
Numerous other leaders and high officials across the region have spent time living and studying in Hawaii. Carol Li, the Study Tours and WorldQuest competition director at the Pacific and Asian Affairs Council in Honolulu, said, "I think Hawaii is already known as a place that not only brings in communities and creates those pathways for communities, but also allows a lot of people to meet with one another."
Li taught English in South Korea, Hong Kong and mainland China before pursuing a graduate degree at UH through the East-West Center. Before taking her job at PAAC this fall she worked as the Young Leaders program director at Pacific Forum. Born and raised in Hawaii, Li comes from a family of Chinese and Korean immigrants.
Her mother's family fled repression in North Korea and her father's family was affected by the Cultural Revolution in China. She said that "for me, that was kind of the catalyst of why I want to get into this work, because there are real issues always happening even during our time now."
However, Li said she also sometimes wonders how aware people in Hawaii are with the swirl of diplomatic and international intrigue sometimes happening right next door to them. She recalled feeling frustrated when the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which is made up of 21 countries, held a senior officials meeting in Honolulu in December 2022.
Li said "all that the news was covering was 'oh, there's gonna be traffic around the convention center.' It didn't even dawn on anyone to take the opportunity to educate others how important APEC is, how the stuff we bring here comes from those supply chains and trade deals."
'Wealth of human talent'
Island life comes with challenges of its own as residents struggle with the high cost of living and trying to get by. Many island residents have also grown more suspicious of foreign policy establishment as the military presence in Hawaii faces heightened scrutiny amid the Red Hill fuel storage leak crisis and ongoing efforts to renew leases on Hawaiian "crown lands " the Army obtained for a mere $1.
Nevertheless, think-tanks in Hawaii continue to see funding roll in while conferences and top-level meetings in the islands are only becoming more frequent.
"There are comparable institutions across the country that are getting slashed, and so far we're doing OK, " said Case. "I'd like to chalk it up to a good delegation, but it's more than just that. It's about the appreciation of these institutions as part of an overall effort in the Indo-Pacific."
Case added that "I think that there still is in parts of kind of the Washington, D.C., mentality, a sense of, 'well, we know best and how can this small state in the middle of the Pacific really bring anything to the party, ' but that perspective is getting to be less and less."
Still, Washington remains the seat of American power, and faraway leaders there still control the flow of federal funds and have the final say on international agreements. The COFA extension signed last month at the East-West Center must still be approved by the U.S. Congress and RMI Parliament to take effect.
The East-West Center maintains offices in both Manoa and Washington, where its researchers work. Center Vice President Satu Limaye, who leads its operations in Washington, said, "I think this is one of the great advantages to the United States that an institution like the East-West Center can have a foot here (in Hawaii ), a foot in Washington and a foot in the region. And that gives us the ability to sort of engage on all fronts, integrate our work in a very substantive and real way."
But many U.S. foreign policy institutions—including those focused on the Pacific—are dominated by staffers and managers that come out of elite educational institutions along America's Atlantic seaboard, which critics have argued fosters a particular mindset. Some leaders in Hawaii think that should change, and that Hawaii can lead the way.
"We are sitting on a wealth of human talent right here in Hawaii, " said U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda. "We have so many individuals here who understand, firsthand in many cases, cultural and historical connections that we have to the Indo-Pacific. Linguistically, we have some of the best individuals who would be able to reach out into the region, yet we don't tap them."
Tokuda sits on the House Armed Services Committee, where she and fellow lawmakers regularly meet with officials and discuss Pacific policy. Earlier this year Tokuda travelled with other lawmakers across the region. She told the Star-Advertiser that "in many of the briefings that I went to, I was the only Asian in the room. We were talking about the Indo-Pacific, we were talking about Asia, and yet I was often the only one in the room."
Colleges across Hawaii have been stepping up programs centered on international affairs, intelligence and national security. Lately Tokuda has been in talks with the University of Hawaii, East-West Center and APCSS to create a new certificate program for students interested in diplomacy and defense.
"We've just got the perfect framework by which to create the program that will help many of our local talent here being able to start to meaningfully contribute to our defense strategy, to our defense discussions and leadership, " said Tokuda.
However, many Hawaii students don't see opportunities in the islands. High costs of living, a competitive job market, the housing crisis and an economy in constant flux are prompting many younger Hawaii residents to leave as they seek work on the mainland.
But as Asia and the Pacific islands play a more prominent role in American policy, Li said that it's important that "we get our local Hawaii students and Hawaii young professionals into these conversations that are happening in our backyard, and even getting them into the region so that they can engage in these dialogues with our partners across the Indo-Pacific."