President Xi Jinping Meets with U.S. President Joe Biden in Bali

US And China Ratchet Up A Tug-Of-War For Influence Over Little-Known Islands In The Pacific

Competition between the U.S. and China is taking shape across a swath of little-known islands that have an outsized strategic importance for America, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
President Xi Jinping Meets with U.S. President Joe Biden in Bali. By Micaela Burrow, DCNF.

Competition between the U.S. and China is taking shape across a swath of little-known islands that have an outsized strategic importance for America, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

A recent pact expanding the U.S. Coast Guard’s ability to ward off disruptive Chinese activities around Palau, an archipelago of atolls and islands in the western Pacific Ocean and former U.S. territory, is the latest in a series of agreements aimed at giving the U.S. open access to the Pacific.

As China expands its own malign brand of policing power and dangles white elephant economic projects before developing Pacific partners, the impetus for America to woo Palau and countries like it is greater than it has been in recent memory, experts told the DCNF.

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“You cannot maintain our policy in Taiwan and our policy in Korea without being able to have free and open access to the Pacific running through these islands,” Alexander Gray, who held the first National Security Council position ever focused primarily on Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, now a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, told the DCNF.

These islands serve as “gas stations” for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, necessary logistics and pre-positioning hubs allowing the American military to operate thousands of miles away from its home shores, Kelley Currie, a former U.S. Representative to the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council and member of the Vandenberg Coalition, explained to the DCNF.

Palau and several other Oceanic states comprise some of the few remaining nations to maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan, she said.

On Wednesday, the U.S. said Coast Guard ships would be able to unilaterally enforce maritime regulations on ships transiting Palau’s exclusive economic zone without the oversight from a Palauan officer present.

Although the agreement did not explicitly mention China, Palauan President Surangel S. Whipps Jr. in June stressed the need for increased U.S. military presence to deter Beijing’s “unwanted activities” in its coastal waters, according to The Associated Press. Whipps said since he took office in 2021, three Chinese vessels made “uninvited” entries appearing to conduct survey activities.

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“The Palauans are grateful and happy to do it because they just don’t have the capacity. And it works out better for everyone on a tactical basis,” Gray explained to the DCNF.

Such agreements “meet regional partners at their level and help them help themselves,” Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific security chair at Hudson Institute, told the DCNF.

Authorities in the Federated States of Micronesia and Papua New Guinea agreed to related arrangements with the U.S. in 2022 to compete with China for influence in the Indo-Pacific.

“I have no doubt that the Micronesians in the Marshalese would love some elements of this capability to have Americans enforce their laws with our platforms, with our ships and aircraft. This is a great initial step toward eventually extending this to additional islands,” Gray said.

China is also reaching for military footholds abroad.

“You can look at where the Chinese are building or are having active conversations about military bases over the last five plus years,” Gray said, referencing the Manus Island naval base in Papua New Guinea, Blackrock in Fiji and Luganville wharf in Vanuatu.

“These are literally the same locations as what the Japanese had in World War Two, because the strategic value of these locations has been unchanged for 80 years. And the Chinese are running the same playbook in Oceania,” Gray said.

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China appears to be winning over the Solomon Islands since the Pacific nation reversed its recognition of Taiwan in 2019 under a new prime minister, signing a pact to allow a Chinese policing presence in July, according to CNN. The prime minister has cracked down on anti-China opposition. Beijing is thought to be developing military bases on the Solomon Islands.

“If the United States, working with allies and partners, cannot uphold the rules and institutions it helped to build, China will have few qualms about imposing Beijing rules on the region,” Cronin told the DCNF.

Those include illegal and environmentally-destructive fishing, resource extraction, bribery and “white elephant” projects designed to maximize benefits for the Chinese Communist Party at the expense of local populations, according to Currie.

We have just assumed in many cases, that because of historic times, China wasn’t going to be able to make the kind of inroads that they’ve been able to make,” Currie said. “We’ve neglected our relationships with a lot of these countries or in some cases had very difficult relationships.”

The U.S. holds a special relationship with Palau as well as the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia, exemplified in Compacts of Free Association. These agreements give the U.S. ability to set up military bases on the islands and deny other countries the same privilege in exchange for allowing visa-free immigration and assuming “full authority and responsibility for security and defense matters,” in the language of the agreement.

Those treaties expire in 2023 and 2024, according to The Department of the Interior, which administers the agreements. The Biden administration has sent millions to the islands to secure renegotiated treaties and convince them to reject China’s economic and diplomatic allures, The Washington Post reported.

America’s long history with the islands has exacted a toll, one that parties are still working through, Currie explained. Decades of nuclear testing, dry dock construction and refueling left the islands with significant environmental damage and stoked grievances.

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“And we should not replicate what China is doing,” Currie told the DCNF. “It’s totally a police state model, and so of course, the outcomes are going to be worse for the people.”

“The United States has a history with most parts of the world, both good and bad, and our disengagement can be even more dangerous than forward engagement,” Cronin told the DCNF. “The United States is not and should not be a global police force.”

The National Security Council did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.

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