Many watched with a mix of fascination and discomfort as Eileen Gu swept three Gold Medals on behalf of China during the most recent 2022 Winter Olympics. In an era in which China is a fierce and competent adversary, it is not surprising that many Americans viscerally feel a sense of suspicion toward someone like Gu straddling her American and Chinese identities. After all, she was born, raised, and plans to attend university in the United States but represented China in the Olympics.
Like with Eileen Gu, suspicion of the loyalty of Asian Americans—especially of Chinese Americans—has markedly increased as U.S-China tensions have escalated. This sentiment is evident in the rest of the country with a rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even active-duty Asian Americans, especially those of Chinese descent, have not been spared from this vicious trend and serve in a Navy in which some question their loyalty. This trend in the ranks is not only viscerally un-American but also severely harms U.S. objectives in ensuring a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. It was less than a hundred years ago when a similar suspicion resulted in the incredible injustices Japanese Americans suffered during World War II.
In 1941, Executive Order 9066 relegated thousands of innocent Japanese Americans to internment camps. Yet despite the persecution they faced at home, thousands of Japanese Americans volunteered to form the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Nicknamed “Go For Broke” for their aggression and bravery, these Nissei (second generation) soldiers earned 21 Medals of Honor and 4,000 Purple Hearts during their service in the Italian campaign. Soldiers from the 442nd recall that they felt pressured to fight more aggressively, knowing that their American loyalty was being questioned at home, and believed their bravery on the battlefield would clear any suspicion of disloyalty. Reflecting their bravery, the 442nd recorded among the highest casualty rates among U.S. units in the European Theater of Operations. Frankly, the country did not deserve the bravery and sacrifice of these young Japanese Americans considering the federal government’s treatment of their families stateside. However, they fought hard anyway, exemplifying that despite its many flaws, the American experiment is something worth fighting for.
While the prospect of an entire ethnic group within the United States being persecuted again seems far-fetched, it is nonetheless a real risk. The full consequences of increased political polarization and social network echo chambers are not yet known. Perhaps the United States is one misinformation campaign away from advocating for a renewed Executive Order 9066 to persecute Chinese Americans. As citizens and sailors who serve in a Navy, and pledges “to excellence and the fair treatment of all,” Navy personnel must aspire to lead and avoid making such a mistake again. Deckplates leaders—petty officers, chiefs, and junior officers—are the first line of defense and must ensure Asian American sailors feel respected and empowered to execute their missions. The following are three ideas that sailors and officers can ponder and implement into their daily leadership routines.
Understand the adversary’s rhetoric. China has deflected legitimate questions on its initial handling of the COVID-19 crisis. Furthermore, it has labeled criticisms of its handling of COVID-19 as a racist anti-Asian rhetoric. Chinese media outlets paint high-profile deaths of Asian Americans in the United States as proof that this country is inherently hostile toward Asians, and that China is the champion and protector of ethnic Chinese and even other Asians in the world. Furthermore, various Chinese media outlets brand China as representing the will of Asia, standing against an imperialist, violent West. One only need read the constant stream of articles written by the Chinese Communist Party’s English-language publication Global Times to understand this narrative barrage. Even as public opinion of China in Asian democratic nations rapidly deteriorated over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, China has doubled down on this East vs West narrative.
Defying China’s narrative are thousands of dedicated Asian-American service members that have or are currently serving across all Department of Defense branches. If China’s narrative was true, then Asian Americans in the Navy should feel marginalized, persecuted, and disadvantaged. But the truth is that Asian Americans are celebrated and treated as valuable members of the team, and the Navy must do everything in its power to uphold this standard. Evidence of the contrary would constitute a massive self-inflicted PRC propaganda victory and degrade U.S. credibility with numerous Asian partner nations. How could an Asian partner nation rely on a visibly bigoted U.S. Navy to uphold an Open and Free Indo-Pacific?
Understand the sailor’s cultural needs. Most Asian-American sailors, especially those foreign born, must navigate a dizzying amount of cultural dysphoria and feel a need to culturally “Americanize” while maintaining a link to their rich cultural heritage. When the sailors have direct family in foreign countries, for example Hong Kong and China, this task becomes even more complex.
This balancing act is often difficult and at times draws unintended attention with negative professional consequences. A Chinese American sailor speaking to his or her family in Mandarin in the berthing area around colleagues may draw suspicion. A Korean American chief may draw scrutiny missing several crucial chief initiation events because his or her family is celebrating Korean Thanksgiving Chuseok, typically conducted in the middle of chief initiation season. In such cases, a leading petty officer who reminds the division that time-zone differences make it impossible for the sailor to speak to family after work, or a master chief who reminds the chief’s mess the importance of Chuseok can significantly ease this balancing act.
Furthermore, deckplate leaders must be able to empathize with sailors that have additional familial stress and guilt because they cannot regularly connect with and support family abroad. While sailors are no strangers to missing significant family milestones because of operational commitments, those with family abroad face an additional hurdle of having to coordinate foreign travel to spend time with them. Recently, with COVID-19 related international travel restrictions, many have simply foregone spending time with family. I have not seen my parents for more than two years and carry guilt for missing years’ worth of family events and seeing them visibly age over Facetime, instead of in person. While country-specific travel restrictions and high operational tempos restrict what deckplate leaders can do to accommodate these sailors, something as small as a holiday dinner invitation, special liberty during a cultural holiday, and explicit support in navigating the complex web of foreign travel requirements will go a long way.
Asian-American sailors are linchpins for success. The current strategy in competing with China and ensuring a Free and Open Indo-Pacific relies on working in concert with a network of close allies. On the deckplates, this cooperation means ever-increasing joint exercises with partner armed forces, and more frequent Indo-Pacific deployments. Executing exercises in partner nations is difficult. Translators are often few and at times do not know the jargon required to effectively interpret communication between military organizations. Furthermore, there are intangibles that translators cannot convey. For example, a Korean American Marine Corps captain on a cold-weather exercise walking the lines handing out piping hot cup noodles to Republic of Korea Marines standing sentry duty will strike a cultural chord that is difficult to understand without having grown up in a Korean household. A Japanese American chief overhearing a group of Japan Maritime Self Defense Force sailors complaining about their perception of being talked down to by their U.S. counterparts can quickly mediate and resolve the issue before distrust and dysfunction spreads during joint operations.
Asian American sailors can do much more than serve as effective liaisons while interoperating with partner nations of their cultural heritage. They can more quickly learn and adapt to the language and culture of other Asian partner forces from different cultural backgrounds than their own. For example, sailors who received education in Japan, Korea, or China often have a working knowledge of Chinese characters and share a significant amount of vocabulary and syntax and can quickly learn another East Asian language. For those already leading in the Indo-Pacific or preparing to deploy to the Indo-Pacific, it is crucial to recognize the capabilities of their Asian-American sailors. Effectively using them could mean the difference between struggling and succeeding in a joint exercise or even life or death when in conflict.
Maintaining a Free and Open Indo-Pacific will be one of the Navy’s greatest challenges in the short and medium term. Enabling Asian American sailors not only to serve honorably but also thrive professionally will help the Navy maintain its human resources comparative advantage over adversaries, as well as cooperate with critical regional partners. However, achieving this goal is not a top-down affair. Deckplate leaders must understand that any discrimination can give the adversary a propaganda victory, Asian-American sailors may have unique needs according to their backgrounds, and these sailors can be the linchpin to a successful deployment, exercise, and even high-intensity conflict.