Bipartisan Group of Senators Pushes for Hawaii’s Inclusion in NATO Treaty

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As NATO leaders gather in Washington, D.C., for their 75th-anniversary summit this week, a bipartisan group of 12 U.S. senators is asking leaders to amend the North Atlantic Treaty, the military alliance’s founding document, to include Hawaii. Written a decade before Hawaii became a state, the 1949 treaty—which requires all members of the alliance to respond if any other member is attacked—only covers territories north of the Tropic of Cancer.

In a letter Wednesday to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the lawmakers—who include Hawaii’s U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono—said “we write to you today about the importance of clarifying that members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization ( NATO ) would consider an armed attack against the State of Hawaii to be an attack against all NATO countries, because of the significant implications for U.S. national security interests and regional and global stability, as well as the imperative that Hawaii residents are treated in a respectful and just manner.”

Hawaii is the home of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and the nerve center of all U.S. military operations in the Pacific region, which the Pentagon considers to be its most important area of operations as the U.S. competes with China for power and influence. Pearl Harbor is currently the site of the most expensive naval construction project in history as the Navy builds a new dry dock to maintain submarines in the Pacific.

U.S. policymakers particularly have their eyes on the South China Sea, a busy waterway through which more than one-third of all international trade moves. China claims the entire sea as its sovereign territory, over the objections of its neighbors, and has become embroiled in a series of disputes over territorial and navigation rights. Tensions have escalated, and last month a Philippine navy sailor was seriously wounded when his boat was rammed and boarded by the Chinese Coast guard as Philippine sailors were on a mission to resupply an outpost on a disputed shoal.

Some analysts have warned that the breakout of conflict or the establishment of blockades in the South China Sea potentially could upend global shipping and send shock waves through the global economy.

North Korea’s missile program also has been a source of anxiety in Hawaii, especially since Jan. 13, 2018, when a false-alarm missile alert went out to cellphones across the state. The alert came as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and then- U.S. President Donald Trump were publicly trading threats and insults, with Trump boasting he would unleash “fire and fury ” on the Korean peninsula.

In April, retired Navy Adm. Harry Harris, who previously commanded INDOPACOM and went on to serve as U.S. ambassador to South Korea, testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he supported including Hawaii as a part of the NATO treaty, arguing that its inclusion would help stave off potential attacks on Hawaii, telling Congress that the islands are “the front line of any attack if we were to suffer an attack from China or North Korea.”

“Allies and adversaries alike must understand now, before potential hostilities erupt, that an attack against Hawaii will be seen as an attack on NATO, ” the lawmakers wrote. “Silence on whether NATO allies would come to the defense of Hawaii undermines our strategy of deterring conflict in the Indo-Pacific.”

Focus on the Pacific The letter comes as NATO and its members already have been paying closer attention to the Pacific. In January, NATO’s director of policy planning, Bene ­detta Berti, attended a military affairs conference in Waikiki hosted by Honolulu think tank Pacific Forum. At this year’s Exercise Rim of the Pacific in Hawaii, three NATO member countries—Germany, Italy and the Netherlands—sent ships for the first time.

Germany is exploring the possibility of setting up a permanent military liaison office in Honolulu to coordinate with U.S. forces as it rolls out its own new Pacific strategy. In January, German navy chief Vice Adm. Jan Christian Kaack told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser while he was in Honolulu that the prospect of disruptions to free navigation in the Pacific is a major concern to Germany and other European countries, as well as recent moves by China in the Arctic.

“China declaring itself a ‘near Arctic nation’ and operating up there, and now with the melting of the ice and Russia’s heavy involvement in the area and then this exploration by China, a lot of people woke up, ” he said. “There’s a better understanding in German society now of how things are interconnected and that we should care.”

Several Pacific countries also are making overtures toward European countries, especially the “Indo-Pacific Four ” nations of Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand—nonmembers of NATO that have nonetheless become closely aligned with the alliance. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who is attending the NATO Summit, stopped in Hawaii before flying to Washington.

“North Korea threatens peace not only on the Korean peninsula but also globally by engaging in illegal weapons trade with Russia, ” Yoon said while addressing service members at Camp Smith on Oahu, according to a release from his office. “In order to protect our freedom and democracy and economic prosperity from these reckless elements, solidarity among countries that share values as well as strength is essential.”

Even as the Russian military finds itself largely tied up in the bloody war in Ukraine, its Pacific Fleet has continued to be active. Russia continues to be a major exporter of both oil and weapons to Pacific and Indian Ocean nations.

Russian spy ships regularly sail to Hawaii to look in on U.S. military exercises and missile tests and in June 2021 the Russian navy held its largest exercise in the Pacific since the end of the Cold War, just 400 miles west of Hawaii. The Russian Pacific Fleet has lately been holding joint patrols with the Chinese navy. The two began their most recent joint patrol last week.

China and Russia have condemned increasing ties between NATO countries and those in Asia.

Some activists also have voiced deep opposition. This year, members of the the Cancel RIMPAC Coalition and the Resist NATO Coalition have joined forces, holding a series of coordinated protest events in Hawaii, San Diego and in Washington. Organizers of the protests argue that exercises like RIMPAC are stoking tensions and assert that China, Russia and North Korea are protecting themselves from U.S.-led aggression and proxy conflicts.

NATO’s members have themselves been divided on just how involved in the Pacific the alliance should be. In 2023 there was discussion of setting up a NATO liaison office in Japan, but some alliance members such as France reportedly expressed concern it could antagonize China, and the proposal was shelved.

“It’s not so much that NATO is thinking about expanding its role, changing its role or changing its footprint ; that’s not what this is about, ” Berti told the Star-Advertiser. “We understand, I think, that we are in a more global and interconnected world, and therefore in order to fulfill our mission of the defense and security of the Euro-­Atlantic, we need to understand security trends in other regions can affect European security. And I think the Indo-Pacific is probably the most important region from a geostrategic economics perspective in the world.”

Kaack said that in meetings with his counterparts in countries like Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines he was told they welcomed involvement of Germany and other European countries in the region—but on the condition that it isn’t through the auspices of NATO or the European Union, and that they put Pacific relationships first.

“That was a clear, clear demand by most of the partners in the area, ” Kaack said.

Hawaii left out 

This isn’t the first time Hawaii’s exclusion from the treaty has been raised by lawmakers. Just six years after Hawaii became a state, Hawaii’s then- U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye wrote to then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk asking whether Hawaii would be covered by the treaty’s Article 5. Rusk responded that “the absence of formal guarantees for Hawaii under the North Atlantic Treaty is obviously but a technicality.”

But when the treaty was first written it was widely understood that Hawaii and America’s other Pacific territories would not be included. In their letter to Blinken, the senators wrote that “not only did Hawaii become a U.S. state, the importance of the Indo-Pacific to U.S. security has increased tremendously. Although since 1949, NATO’s footprint has expanded from 12 founding members to 32, the alliance has not accounted for the inclusion of Hawaii as the 50th state of the union.”

In an article for Pacific Forum’s weekly publication PacNet, the organization’s president, David Santoro, and researcher John Hemmings wrote that while a strike on Hawaii is “at the extreme end of the possible, it nevertheless illustrates a potential crisis-in-waiting for the alliance. As allies begin arriving in Washington (D.C.) for the NATO Summit this week, they should consider scenarios of this kind. They should reflect on the implications of a U.S.- China conflict over Taiwan and what the alliance can and should do now to better deter and, if deterrence fails, better respond to such a conflict.”

The two argued that NATO isn’t just a military alliance, but a diplomatic and economic bloc as well and that “its total economic weight is a combined GDP (gross domestic product ) of $39.6 trillion, with half of the top 10 economies as member states. This represents huge pre-conflict deterrence value for a China intent on maintaining economic growth for the sake of internal security.”

In their letter, the lawmakers wrote that “the scars of the attack on Pearl Harbor are still visible today. We understand the threat that any potential conflict in the Indo-Pacific would pose to Hawaii and are committed to doing whatever is necessary to protect the state from future aggression.”

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