James H. Webb is a man of many accomplishments. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, who served in Vietnam as a Marine Corps officer, and was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroic actions while being wounded in combat. He was the Secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan. He served as a U.S. Senator from Virginia, and ran for President of the United States in the 2016 election. Webb is also the author of 10 books, the first written in 1975 about American security interests in the Western Pacific. The 71-year-old Webb has had a keen interest in Guam and the Northern Marianas ever since, and continues to advocate for Guam’s role in national defense. The Guamanian Magazine had a chance to interview Senator Webb during a recent visit to the island:
Tell us about your first book, Micronesian and United States Pacific Strategy.
This was a book that I wrote following a series of magazine articles, and actually coming out here and looking at the situation, and talking to people out here, addressing how important this region is in terms of the American presence and in terms of the stability of East Asia. And so I’ve been doing this a long time. (The strategy) has had its ups and downs. I started this many, many years ago. I was looking at the tail end of the Vietnam War and where the American bases were out in East Asia, and whether there might be a better way for us to address our national security interests out here by consolidating a lot of the ground units, consolidating our position in Guam and the Northern Marianas with a powerful navy presence forward, and still being able to communicate the interests around here. So Guam is still really one of the key places, Guam and the Northern Marianas, for us to do that.
During your time in the U.S. Senate, you and key colleagues John McCain and Carl Levin were concerned about the initial scope and cost of the Marine relocation from Okinawa to Guam. More than five years later, what are your thoughts on the current scaled-down plan?
I’d like to see it move forward a little more quickly, but it sounds like it is now. I know that when I was in the Senate it was for 88 hundred marines to come in. A lot of it was for headquarters staff, the way they were planning it, and there were issues out here on the environmental protection agency reviews, and that was sort of slowing it down. But I believe that Guam, and also Tinian, could house more military people to the benefit of—the overall benefit—the economy of this area and also to our strategic interests.
The military build-up on Guam is tied to the Obama administration’s so-called “Pivot to Asia,” and China’s growing influence in the region. Can you comment on that?
I’d like to point out that I started leading a pivot to Asia two years before Obama was elected. When I got to the Senate I got on the Foreign Relations committee, I got on the East Asia sub-committee, which I became chairman of, and I sat down and said—two years before Obama was elected—we must strengthen our relations in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, and change the formula in Burma—and we led that out of my office. I don’t think this is an Obama issue; it’s an American issue, and I would hope that the Trump administration would also support the importance, the vital importance, of this region to global security. I don’t see any indication that it won’t, or that the administration will not. I sort of get that feeling from the confirmation hearings of the individual who is going to be Secretary of State. I think the statements that he has made are very clear, that we are not going to sit back and watch Chinese expansionism and not do something about it. And if you want a clear signal as to their intentions in this region, that is one of them. I’m not a prognosticator, and I’m not a member of his administration, but I don’t think this is going to be bad for this region.
The United States must step up to this challenge. The future stability of East Asia depends on it. https://t.co/TtGXw9kk8H— Jim Webb (@JimWebbUSA) April 27, 2016
You have some strong opinions about China and U.S. security interests in the region, can you elaborate?
I’ve been writing and speaking about the security interests in not only the South China Sea, but also the Senkaku Islands up in the north that address the security of the Japanese areas, and particularly the Ryukyus in Okinawa. I’ve been writing about this for a good 20 years now, saying that it’s very important for us to address the expansionism of the Chinese military in this area, and to make sure that they are not conducting aggressive military behavior in claiming areas that are not really a part of their sovereignty. In the Senate I worked on this very hard, we got some measures passed through the Senate—talking about solving these problems in a multilateral way with more than two parties—in the resolution of military issues. And we got broad support from the ASEAN countries, including Singapore, which didn’t have any land claims in the South China Sea. They strongly supported what we were saying, as did these other areas. So what China has been doing here, all the way down to the Straits of Malacca, should be of very serious concern to the other countries out there.
I think the Obama administration could’ve done a lot better in terms of directly confronting China. It doesn’t have to be a ship shooting at a ship, but more aggressively communicating how important it is that they not claim absolute sovereignty over a lot of these islands out here. They’re militarizing them at a time when sovereignty issues are not clear, and it would be far-fetched, quite frankly, to say that this is Chinese territory right off the coast of the Philippines and in these other areas.
You seem to favor a more hardline approach to China. What do you think should be the U.S. strategy going forward?
I’ve been talking about this for a long time; in fact, even in the presidential debates one of the things I said is that our greatest long-term strategic challenge is the relationship with China. This is an unelected, authoritarian government that has killed its own people, if you look back at Tiananmen. We don’t really think about that in terms of some of these other issues where we have repressive governments and we take action. Economically we want to be partners, and in the long term we want to be able to work together, but you don’t do that with an authoritarian government by allowing them to do what they’ve been doing and not standing up to it.
I think the great challenge in addressing China’s activities in East Asia is to make sure that we have multi-lateral solutions rather than simply bilateral solutions. That’s equally important when you look at the issues of the Mekong River, by the way, where China has been building these massive dams. The water supply at the southern end of the Mekong River affects 70 million people, and China does not recognize downstream water rights and so they only address these issues bilaterally. [China] is so large they just dominate every country that they’re talking to. And so the long-term strategy for us should be to directly face China’s expansionism, not to accept it, and to urge that these issues be resolved properly in the international environment.
I read an article that states you were one of the few prominent political figures who predicted Trump could win.
I ran for awhile for President as a Democrat and it was very clear early on that the Clinton machine had so much money and so many connections that it (Webb’s presidential bid) wasn’t going to happen. But I like to say that Donald Trump understood a lot of the issues that I was trying to address in terms of fairness in the country, and the disaffection of a lot of the working people who were cut out, you know, in flyover land. I like to say that Donald Trump got a lot of the issues, and Hillary Clinton got a lot of the money, so I could kind of see it coming.
Are the Republicans now the Party of Trump? And what about the future of your party, the Democrats?
The Democratic Party is based on addressing the interests of working people, regardless of race, ethnic group, etcetera, etcetera. The Party structure had gotten away from this into “interest group politics” and made a conscious decision, I think, to ignore white working class people in this country. It was very foolish. So Donald Trump saw this, and he wasn’t the only one who saw it. I was speaking about it, and there were others, but he tapped a nerve. I had a very good friend of mine who was in my unit in the Marine Corps in Vietnam—actually we got wounded on the same day—who supported me when I was running. And after I pulled out he sent me an email and he said, ‘You know, this guy Trump, the Republicans hate him, the Democrats hate him, and the media hates him. I think I found my guy.’
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