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After decades focused on the Middle East, the U.S. military shifts to the Pacific

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It was President Barack Obama who said it first. After years of fighting in the Middle East, the U.S. was going to, quote, "pivot to Asia." That was aspirational more than anything else as the war in Afghanistan and the fight against terrorism kept the U.S. mired in that region. It was like the Democrats' version of Infrastructure Week. Now, the pivot to Asia actually seems to be happening. The U.S. military just finished training exercises in Hawaii with other countries from the Indo-Pacific. And yes, this is all about countering China. NPR's Emily Feng reports from those exercises in Hawaii.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: The Hawaiian sun has just peeked out from behind the morning clouds when I get this quick safety rundown right before I step into the Black Hawk helicopter.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #1: When you get in, there's going to be two seat belts, one around the waist and two over the shoulders. You don't want to have something we call submarining where you slide out from under the seat.

FENG: And with that, I climb into the back of the Black Hawk with two Army sergeants.

Thank you. Where do I sit - here?

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #1: Right there.

FENG: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #2: (Inaudible).

FENG: And we're off. This Black Hawk is part of a larger exercise in the skies over Hawaii's islands designed to mimic a real island-hopping campaign, say, off the coast of China or Taiwan. After more than an hour or so of skimming the bright blue Pacific Ocean, the pilot spots the Apache helicopters we're supposed to cover as they attempt to refuel.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #3: You have your Hellfire missiles right here, 30 mm main gun.

FENG: While these air exercises are going on, there's also infantry units camped out in the Hawaiian jungle and Marine and Navy detachments practicing in the waters around. It's all part of a 10-day training across Hawaii's eight islands hosted out of the U.S. Army's newest training center, one designed specifically to get American fighting forces up to speed working in the Pacific. That's because the U.S. Army is undergoing a massive transition, pivoting to threats in the Pacific. That includes North Korea and Russia and the Arctic. But the real focus, the country, quote, "setting the pace," as the Army calls it, is China.

JOE RYAN: They want to be the most powerful nation on Earth. And I think they see the United States in their way of that goal.

FENG: This is Major General Joe Ryan, the commanding general of the 25th Infantry Division on Hawaii, the main unit participating in the Hawaii exercises. He points to Chinese exercises near Taiwan in August as a sign of Beijing's growing strength.

RYAN: I think most people who were just looking at pure facts would argue that what they did in response to Speaker Pelosi's visit in Taiwan was a rehearsal, was a demonstration of capability. And there's no question about that.

FENG: Which is why an entire generation of officers who cut their teeth in counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq have to get up to speed in the Indo-Pacific.

CHARLES FLYNN: You want me to hold it?

FENG: Helping lead the charge and the army is this guy, General Charles Flynn. He's the commanding general of the U.S. Army Pacific.

FLYNN: You know, you look at areas like Oceana and what's going - some of the activities that are going on in South Asia. And then we've already talked about their actions in the East China Sea, South China Sea, Taiwan Strait. And those are concerning.

FENG: Beijing is paying close attention. And they've also set ambitious goals to modernize their own military for what they say is self-defense. But that has made other countries, not just the U.S., nervous. That's why Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia sent infantry units of their own to train with American soldiers in Hawaii. Nine other countries, like Australia and Japan, are observing. Many of them are interested in holding their own such exercises and building their own training centers. General Flynn says these partnerships are key.

FLYNN: I believe that that is our greatest counterweight to the incremental and insidious behavior of the PRC.

FENG: Sergeant Pongsang Petbosah (ph) came with the Royal Thai Army to Hawaii to observe the training.

PONGSANG PETBOSAH: The U.S. Army is very professional, and it's very helpful for us to be prepared and pick up what we have left behind or we have been behind from.

FENG: And this joint training also makes it easier to sync up and join forces with the U.S. Army in short order, if ever needed. Back out in the jungle of Oahu, I find Indonesian and American soldiers setting up posts in a couple of concrete buildings they've captured overnight. It's not always smooth working together because not everyone speaks English, and they've got to fall back on sign language every so often. Despite such challenges, Major General Ryan says this preparation is worth the effort.

RYAN: The old adage of the more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war, that's really what we hope to achieve. But again, the goal by doing it is to deter China from thinking that they will be successful.

FENG: And thereby preventing a conflict in the first place.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Oahu, Hawaii. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.