Trigger Warning: There are mentions of interpersonal, structural, and mass racialized sexual violence.
The United States’ intensified grip on the Asia-Pacific continues to render the Pacific — known as “The Ocean Bride of America” — its feminized, orientalized captive of war. Where the United States has identified China and its achievements in building a world without dependence on US capital (such as China’s Belt & Road Initiative and lifting 800 million people out of poverty) as its primary target, it escalates for hot war through its pivot to Asia, its 400 military bases, and more specifically, its aggressive agenda for nuclear warmongering. However, for women, girls, and gender non-conforming peoples in the imperialized Pacific, nuclearization has always been an imperialist tool for gendered violence. For them, the war(s) in the Pacific never ended.
To understand the consequences of nuclear warfare in today’s militarized Asia-Pacific, we need to explore how mechanisms of nuclear warfare impact women, girls, and gender-nonconforming peoples.
The United States first developed its nuclear infrastructure in the Pacific. Alongside genocide of Indigenous peoples in Turtle Island for settler-colonial land acquisition, military settler-colonial ambitions took the United States across the Pacific again with World War II. As a result, the Pacific became captive stations of both hyper-exoticized extermination and recreation.
As the United States repurposed its first 19th century colonies in the Pacific — Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines — to serve as geostrategic “stepping stones” to China, islands became ports for nuclear submarines, yearly naval exercises, and the development of military technology. Simultaneously, the tourism and sex tourism industry was developed to sanitize military presence on the islands. The cultural prostitution of once sovereign places like Hawaii made Indigenous women into exotic, sexualized sites for rest and recreation. This combination of US’ dispossession of land and resources and the violent hypersexualization of native women enabled the conditions for which Native Hawaiian women continue to be most at risk of sexual violence, domestic violence, and sex trafficking today.
The US also obtained strategic trusteeships such as the 1947 Pacific Proving Grounds initiative, which converted Micronesia and their sovereign land, water, and people into testing grounds for nuclear waste, bioweaponry tests, and the securitization of its on-call naval capacities. Exposure to high to low-dose contamination since then have made Marshallese women victims of congenital disabilities, cancer, and other chronic damage to reproductive health. Alongside recreation, the Pacific became a site of aqua nullius genocide.
WHAT “PROTECTING” THE PACIFIC REALLY MEANT
As the United States expands its weapons arsenal through its most recent $7.1 billion Pacific Deterrence Initiative, it recycles its Cold War motto for “protecting” Pacific nations against the “threat” of Chinese encroachment. Just like it did during the Cold War, this Initiative repurposed US bases in Guam, South Korea, Okinawa, and more with new weapon programs meant to threaten North Korean and Chinese nuclear defense arsenals. In Guam and South Korea, the newest Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system is capable of taking down Intercontinental ballistic missiles and utilizes tests that displaces productive land and air resources. Korean women and elders, who bear the consequences of militarized land and resources, remain at the forefront of anti-THAAD protests and demands.
The demonization of nuclearized “rogue states” such as North Korea, Iran, and Syria simply relieves the US of its role in creating the conditions for the realities that forced these states to adopt such weapons in the first place.
Of course, the expansion of military bases has also always meant the sexploitation of working-class women for white sexual imperialism, reifying US intervention “for their own good and the good of civilization.” From the UN-sanctioned 1950 invasion of Korea (the carpet bombing of North Korea totaling greater attacks than on Germany and Japan during World War II) to the US war in Vietnam and Southeast Asia (with over 8 million B-52 bombs dropped, equivalent to 100 times the damage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined) the United States established agreements with sub-imperial nations for Rest and Recreation sites, institutionalizing the sexual slavery of women economically and physically coerced into the trade. Aside from dehumanizing women of the “enemy” for the purposes of motivating military extermination (i.e., the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam and the use of pornography in US invasions of Iraq), women across Asia were made into hypersexualized, docile, disposable objects for the sexual and political desires of colonizer men.
With survivors as young as 9 months old, US military personnel have had a long history of assaulting Okinawan women and girls, faced with little to no legal repercussions. In recovering Southeast Asian nations, the commodification of women through the mail order brides industry, militarization of transnational domestic labor arrangements, and sex buying at or around (former) military bases reveal how much national production continues to be bound to the murders of girls and children in neocolonial agreements. That the militarization of a society transpires into multiple forms of violence against women across borders; it is no accident that national sexual assault organizations report that Asian and Pacific Islander women are more likely to be sexually assaulted by white assailants.
IMPACT OF SANCTIONS ON WOMEN IN THE PACIFIC
Coming full circle, the nuclearization of the Pacific must be understood as a means to fundamentally contain any peoples who dare to challenge 20th-century debt-trap capitalism. Assertions of national self-determination and alternative nationalized production capacities must be quelled. In order to justify the use of sanctions as warfare, the demonization of nuclearized “rogue states” such as North Korea, Iran, and Syria simply relieves the United States of its role in creating the conditions for the realities that forced these states to adopt such weapons in the first place.
Without yet taking into account US violations of nuclear deterrence initiatives, such as the Iran Deal, sanctions lay siege to a nation’s capacity to eat, produce, and survive through deadly restrictions that debilitate the country’s access to the world market. Working women, who are responsible for the reproductive and productive capacities of the economy, thus bear the brunt of sanctions’ consequences. For example, sanctions faced by North Korea have caused feminized production in the textile industry to be undervalued, and cut off from profits of the international market. Unable to access a stable source of income and thus economic autonomy, women become prone to other forms of gendered violence. In a weakened economy with dwindling food and medical access, it is no wonder 99% of pregnant women are unable to access medical aid needed for pregnancy.
In Iran, a fossil fuel-rich country, sanctions have made it ironically impossible to import the capital they need to access their own natural resources, driving down their general economy and driving up state restrictions to make up for its underproduction. Again, inflationary rent and unstable incomes have made it impossible for women to work toward anything but survival. The state’s welfare capacity to provide transportation, maternity leave, and childcare was limited as women who were previously able to struggle for things like girls’ education under the Islamic Republic of Iran faced difficulty accessing literacy with newly imposed state restrictions.
It was and continues to be anti-imperialist feminists on the forefront of imperialized nations who identified the United States as the largest threat to women, life, and humanity. They remind us that fundamentally, we need to struggle for a world without nuclear weapons.
But we need to think about nuclearization as a historical, geopolitical process that brandishes violence against women to accomplish its larger objectives: US ambitions for its capitalist world order. The late Haunani Kay Trask, Native Hawaiian independence activist and feminist, pinpoints US imperialism as the root of the racialized, gendered nuclear crisis best:
“Only the dismantling of the United States as we know it could begin the process of ending racism…
I join with Toni Morrison, one of the finest writers of our age, in asserting that I am not American. Nor, I might add, do I want to be American. Those who believe as I do, especially those who did not become part of the United States voluntarily, will surely nod in agreement.”
Victoria Huynh is an aspiring educator and writer, learning to put anti-imperialist feminism(s) into practice. She is also a fellow at Beyond the Bomb.
Correction 07/13: The original article has been corrected for clarity.