Alaska's fleet of F-22 fighter jets and their elite pilots have been deployed to an airbase in the Pacific U.S. territory of Guam, according to officials at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage. The deployment has been planned for some time, but happens to coincide with a period of escalating tension in the Pacific Theater, as Japan and China dispute who has the rights to a set of uninhabited, resource-rich islands.
A press release sent out Monday night from JBER said that the F-22 Raptors were deployed to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, located nearly 2,000 miles from China. According to public affairs officer Capt. Ashley Conner, it is the first time since January of 2011 that the F-22s have been deployed to the region, and is part of a series of rotations that began in 2009.
"This deployment is the second F-22 Pacific Command theater deployment since 2011," Conner said. "The F-22s from Langley AFB, Virginia were the first to deploy. It is a rotational deployment that signifies a continued commitment to regional stability and security and allows our units to become familiar with operating in the Pacific theater."
The move to the Pacific is interesting in light of the heightened tension between Japan and China, originating from a dispute over what the Japanese call the Senkaku Islands and the Chinese refer to as the Diaoyu Islands. While some of the debate revolves around the fishing waters around the islands -- China launched a 1,000-fishing-vessel fleet over the weekend -- that's not the real issue.
"These islands are just tiny little rocks in the ocean, not inhabitable, so the land itself is not really the point," said Dr. Paul Dunscomb, a professor of East Asian history at the University of Alaska Anchorage. "But the ocean territories and the seabed resources around the islands are very much the point, in particular oil and gas and minerals."
The F-22s based out of Langley are currently stationed in Kadena, Japan, very close to the islands in question. The U.S. has a security treaty with Japan which would obligate military intervention should the situation escalate, but Conner said that this most recent deployment is entirely unrelated the situation.
"These deployments are a prudent measure to maintain a credible deterrent posture and presence in the region and not in response to any specific situation," Conner said. "This deployment is just resuming the F-22 deployment rotation."
Still, given the close scrutiny on the situation in the Pacific and China and Japan's long history of distrust, the timing of the move is intriguing. According to Dunscomb, bad blood remains in China over the occupation of that country by Japanese forces for about a half-century beginning in the late 19th century and ending with World War II. Dunscomb said that hard feelings about atrocities committed by the Japanese during those years have been etched into the national consciousness of China.
Of course, in a country where public protests are often quickly squashed, why have Chinese authorities allowed protests to persist over Japanese occupation of the Senkaku Islands? Well, Dunscomb said, it might be to the Chinese government's advantage.
"The Chinese government in particular finds it useful to keep this alive," he said. "It allows those protests it thinks are useful, comes down like a ton of bricks on any protests it finds (not) useful."
He said that a compromise might need to be reached in order to resolve the situation, one that might see China giving up maritime rights in certain areas in exchange for others. In particular, that could mean the Arctic, which China has made noise about getting involved in.
But it may not end so smoothly, and the situation may escalate militarily, which could put those F-22s to much different use than the one they were sent to Guam for.
"(China) might just feel that they have the power to do it, because they are convinced they are not only stronger than Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, but because they believe America is a 'declining power' and there's nothing we can do about it," Dunscomb said.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com