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  • Critical Refugee Studies and Native Pacific Studies:A Transpacific Critique
  • Yến Lê Espiritu (bio)

When I started my research on the Vietnam War and its refugees, I conceptualized the Vietnam War as a dyadic war between the United States and Vietnam—an asymmetric dyad to be sure, but a nevertheless. What I came to realize was that the war, and the subsequent US-led refugee rescue operation, involved a constellation of US former and current colonial territories in the Asia-Pacific region. This realization led me to reconceptualize the Vietnam War not as a dyadic but as a transpacific war that inflicted collateral damage on the Vietnamese and also on indigenous and (formerly) colonized subjects in the circuits of US Empire. This reconceptualization of the Vietnam War advances a transpacific critique that knits together diverse memories of historical violence—settler colonialism, military expansion, and refugee displacement—into a layered story of US Empire in the Asia-Pacific region.

My own refugee flight—from Vietnam to the Philippines to Guam and then to California, moving from one US military base to another—illustrates the reach, and destruction, of the US military empire in the Asia-Pacific region. In 1975, about 92 percent of the first-wave refugees who fled Vietnam via US military aircraft trekked through the Philippines, Guam, or Wake Island—all islands in the Pacific, all with prominent US military bases.1 Not mere happenstance, these stopovers followed the dictates of a “militarized organizing logic” that reflected—and revealed—the layering of US past colonial and ongoing militarization practices in the Asia-Pacific region.2 As many scholars have documented, US military bases form one of the most visible connections that link the United States, Asia, and the Pacific Islands, with outposts stretching from Okinawa and South Korea to Hawai‘i and San Diego.3 Indeed, it was the enormity of the military buildup in the region that enabled the United States to launch and sustain its war in Vietnam and to handle the large-scale refugee rescue operation immediately after the Fall of Saigon in April 1975. Situating Vietnamese refugees within the longue durée of US military colonialism in Asia and the Pacific, I bridge critical refugee studies and Native Pacific [End Page 483] studies by conceptualizing “the refugee” as a site of transpacific critique, whose emergence exposes the linked processes of colonization, militarization, and forced displacement.

Transpacific Studies and Native Pacific Studies

During the 1980s and 1990s, critics working in Asia-Pacific and Pacific Rim studies point out how the largely economistic approach to the transpacific, with its focus on rising Asian economies and the transfer of peoples and goods across and around the Pacific, elides and excludes the more fluid and dynamic transcultural exchanges and Oceanic movements from below. In the introduction to their 1995 seminal collection Asia/Pacific as Space of Cultural Production, Rob Wilson and Arif Dirlik pointed out how the “Asia-Pacific” formulation, circulated and fortified by market planners and military strategists, fails to capture the transpacific cultural experiences and innovations wrought at the grassroots level.4 More than a decade later, Setsu Shigematsu and Keith Camacho made a similar argument, contending that the Asia-Pacific term, while useful for economic analyses of industries and transpacific networks of power along the Pacific Rim, makes invisible the multiplicity of Pacific Islander contributions to these regional economies and polities.5 More recently, Viet Nguyen and Janet Hoskins propose a framework for transpacific studies that considers both domination and resistance in the geopolitical struggle over the Pacific.6

Native Pacific studies critics have long pointed out that discussions of the Asia Pacific have “habitually excluded” those within the Pacific Ocean, opting to focus instead on societies situated on its boundaries.7 When Pacific Islanders figure into the transpacific formulations, they are often absorbed into the rubric of Asian/Pacific Islander, Asian Pacific, or Asian Pacific American, panethnic categories used primarily in US public policy, mass media, and social activism circles and that prioritize Asian/American concerns.8 Amy Ku’leialoha Stillman, Vicente Diaz, J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, and others have indicated how the contemporary formulations of the transpacific in Asian American studies have largely...


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pp. 483-490
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