In his book: The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy To Replace American Order, former Brookings fellow Rush Doshi argues that China has “three sequential ‘strategies of displacement’ they will pursue at the military, political and economic levels” to lessen and eventually replace America’s clout in the world. He postulates that China could be successful because they play “the long game”
One of Beijing’s hegemonic strategies in the coming decades is to exert as much influence over the island nations of the Pacific Ocean as they possibly can. Their unsubtle plan is to follow in the United States’ footsteps in order to counter the imposing American military presence on Guam and Hawaii by gaining a foothold in the region of western Oceania known as Micronesia.
With Doshi’s prescient warning in mind, renewal of the Compacts of Free Association with Micronesia must be elevated to top priority in American foreign policy. Each Compact of Free Association (COFA) is a reciprocal agreement between the United States and one of the three countries compromising Micronesia: the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), and the Republic of Palau.
Under the COFAs, the U.S. federal government guarantees financial assistance over a 15-year period for full international defense authority and responsibilities.
In non-diplomatic speak, the Compact allows the citizens of Micronesia to use the U.S. dollar as currency and to freely enter the U.S. without visas while enjoying the protection of the U.S. military, along with a steady stream of cash and a boatload of federal programs and benefits. In exchange, the U.S. government is granted access to their lands and resources — most importantly their ports and airfields — in a time of war.
The strategic necessity of having access to deep-water harbors, runways and stockpiles of materiel every several hundred miles while campaigning across the vastness of the Pacific Ocean cannot be overstated. These COFAs renew periodically, with 2023 marking the deadline for the RMI and the FSM Compacts. Palau’s is up for renewal in 2024.
So far, none of these COFAs have been renewed as their deadlines approach. This uncertain state of affairs has not gone unnoticed by People’s Republic of China. As such, Chinese emissaries are actively canvassing the western Pacific, aggressively trying to wring any concessions they can from the Micronesian states’ governments to get their proverbial nose under the tent.
The most important U.S. outpost is Guam in the Mariana Islands. It is the largest landmass in western Oceania and hosts two American military bases: Naval Base Guam and Andersen Air Force Base. A new Marine Corps base, Camp Blaz, is currently under construction.
The Chinese, however, are most interested in the Republic of Palau, a beautiful archipelago located 800 miles west-southwest of Guam. It is the closest island chain to Mainland China that doesn’t have a U.S. military base. Palau is the second largest landmass in Micronesia but unlike Guam, which a territory under the direct ministry of the United States, Palau is an independent country and therefore is under no obligation to permit any U.S. military construction in peacetime.
Micronesian islanders have a 150-year history of working with Asian countries. It was, in fact, the early Japanese settlers who brought modernization to the islands. My Palauan grandmother by marriage, who was from the “World War Two generation”, spoke better Japanese than English. When the world went to war, the Micronesians found themselves swept up in fierce battles between invading U.S. and defending Japanese armed forces. For them, the powerful Americans may have brought more freedom, but their arrival also ruined the Micronesians’ tranquil, agrarian way of life.
Two years ago, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and the FSM began high-level talks to forge an agreement to build a new base. This is a step in the right direction, but a COFA has yet to be signed despite the upcoming 2023 deadline. Although still committed to the Americans, the FSM has allowed Beijing to open an embassy in the capital of Palikir on the island of Pohnpei.
For decades, the RMI has been a stalwart American ally, but a dispute with Washington is testing that loyalty.
The Marshallese feel their claims for environmental and health damage caused by the dozens of post-WWII thermonuclear device tests are not being properly addressed. To complicate matters, a brazen display of Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) capacity for treachery has been exemplified by recently uncovered skullduggery. A Chinese couple was indicted for what the DOJ described as a “multi-year scheme to try and establish an autonomous ‘mini-state’ in the Marshall Islands”.
In light of this disquieting proof of the lengths the CCP is willing to go in their unwavering quest to acquire Micronesian territory, the RMI and the United States have agreed to speed up negotiations. This new schedule to expedite signing of the COFA illustrates Washington’s worries about China’s expanding Pacific presence. To date, the RMI has stayed dedicated to the U.S. and Taiwan, not allowing Beijing to open an embassy — yet.
Still, the ultimate goal for China remains Palau. Luckily for the U.S., Palauans are fiercely territorial and do not allow foreigners to own land in Palau.
The Japanese bought up most of the attractive properties in Guam and Saipan during their real estate expansion boom of the 1980’s. When they tried to do the same in Palau they were stonewalled. The Chinese are attempting to succeed where the Japanese failed. Beijing is endeavoring to circumvent the COFA by purchasing Palauan land outright with offers of cash in truly astounding amounts — the likes of which have never before been seen in Palau. The fact that the PRC emissaries are dangling such munificent cash awards is prima facie evidence of how badly Beijing wants to gain a foothold in Micronesia. The Palauans have so far stuck to tradition and refused.
As with all shrewd tacticians, however, the Chinese have a contingency plan. After courting the government of the Solomon Islands in Melanesia for some time, they have made considerable headway.
The United States, Australia, and the FSM applied extreme diplomatic pressure to thwart a new security agreement between the Solomons and Beijing, fearing that the deal could lead to a Chinese military presence in the islands and increase tensions in the region. But the Solomons Islands already switched diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to Mainland China in 2019.
Last month Prime Minister Sogavare signed the security agreement and decried the protests as “very insulting”. He said, “We are not pressured in any way by our new friends”. He added that there is no intention whatsoever to ask China to build a military base in the Solomon Islands. In a prelude to what the Micronesians can expect from an agreement with the CCP, the first wave of Chinese “security” police arrives in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, next month to help preserve “social order”.
One hopes that the governors and legislatures of the states of Micronesia will watch closely how the true China-Melanesia dynamic unfolds and consider the meaning of an ancient phrase: “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.” A COFA with communist China will be quite different from one with a democratic republic like the United States of America. Such a binding agreement with a totalitarian regime will certainly have obscure authoritarian clauses built in.
To be sure, Xi Jinping will make soothing promises that the status quo will go on as before. But once the deal is done, the Chinese will expect robust concessions and will demand much more control than the citizens of Micronesia are accustomed to. One needs to look no further than Hong Kong to see how Beijing reneged on its promises to their once-free citizens of an egalitarian society.
The Chinese understand, however, that setting up shop in Melanesia is only second best. The islands of Micronesia are the real prizes necessary to roll back over a century of U.S. influence in an area of the Pacific they believe ought to fall within their territorial sphere of influence.
The next renewal of the Compact of Free Association may appear to be a fait accompli, but the longer Washington procrastinates, the better Beijing may begin to look to those whose ultimate loyalty is to their own island people. As the Chinese continue with promises of gargantuan amounts of cash along with enticing “security” incentives, who knows what the governments of Micronesia may decide?
All eyes in Washington should be turned toward the western Pacific for the next two years. Indeed, the next two decades. If Palau and the RMI give in and allow Beijing to establish an embassy, as the FSM already has, it could trigger a “Warm War” in the balmy Pacific between the USA and China.
At the moment, it is the Micronesian people’s independence rather than a love of the United States which keeps them from accepting the very tempting Chinese largesse. But, “every man has his price”. The Chinese may help the Micronesians find theirs if the Americans aren’t careful.
Brian Schaeffer is a retired realtor and former naval aviator.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.