China has achieved progress in the Pacific islands as an area of strategic interest that it has not been able to achieve elsewhere in the world, a new report by a US Congress-funded think-tank has said.
The advancement of China’s geo-strategic goals among Pacific nations should be a cause for concern – but not alarm – for Washington, according to the report released on Tuesday by the United States Institute for Peace, whose co-authors include former senior military officials.
To counter China’s growing influence in the region, the US should bolster support for island states in the north Pacific where it had the strongest historical ties, the report suggests.
“Chinese officials have not stated publicly that the Pacific Islands region is an area of heightened strategic interest, but the benefits for Beijing of increased engagement with the region are clear,” according to the report.
“Perhaps to a greater extent than any other geographic area, the Pacific Islands offer China a low-investment, high-reward opportunity to score symbolic, strategic, and tactical victories in pursuit of its global agenda.”
The report comes ahead of a meeting between US President Joe Biden and a dozen Pacific island leaders next week, as Washington seeks to compete for influence with Beijing.
The Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau are sovereign nations known as Freely Associated States (FAS) that signed compacts in the late 1980s giving the US defence responsibilities and the right to military bases in those territories.
Those compacts, which expire in 2023 and 2024, are currently being renegotiated by the US and the report warned that the concerned states could look to China for funding if negotiations with Washington fail.
“The vast FAS territorial seas, which span much of the northern Pacific, are an important strategic buffer between US defence assets in Guam and Hawaii and East Asian littoral waters,” according to the report, whose authors include Philip Davidson, a former commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, and David Stilwell, a former US assistant secretary of state.
If Beijing were to succeed in bringing one of the FAS states into its sphere, “it would imperil US military capabilities in a strategically vital geographic command area and open the door to a broader reordering of regional architecture with implications well beyond the Pacific region,” the report states.
A US missile defence test range in the Marshall Islands is critical to US space and missile-defence capabilities, the report added.
Washington needs to provide an alternative to Chinese economic assistance to “counter Beijing’s efforts to capitalize on regional perceptions of neglect and abandonment”, the report notes.
More resources were also needed to monitor China’s increasing activity in the FAS, where Chinese research vessels with “military utility” have been spotted moving around without permission.
The Federated States of Micronesia recently agreed to develop new US military facilities, and Palau requested that the US build airstrips, ports and bases, which “Washington should consider seriously to the extent that it aligns with defence needs,” the report said.