Competition Intensifies Between U.S. and China Over Strategic Pacific Islands

In a growing showdown with significant geopolitical implications, the United States and China are vying for control over a cluster of lesser-known islands that wield substantial strategic importance for America, according to experts cited by the Daily Caller News Foundation.

The latest move in this ongoing power struggle is a recent agreement that bolsters the U.S. Coast Guard’s capability to counteract disruptive Chinese activities around Palau, an archipelago of atolls and islands in the western Pacific Ocean, formerly a U.S. territory. This pact is part of a series of agreements designed to grant the U.S. unfettered access to the Pacific region. As China continues to expand its influence, both through coercive tactics and attractive economic projects, the United States is increasingly motivated to court nations like Palau, according to experts interviewed by the DCNF.

Alexander Gray, a former National Security Council member whose primary focus was Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands, now a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, emphasized the importance of these islands in maintaining U.S. policies in the Asia-Pacific region. He stated, “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.”

Kelley Currie, a former U.S. Representative to the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council, and a member of the Vandenberg Coalition, likened these islands to “gas stations” for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, serving as crucial logistics and pre-positioning hubs that enable the American military to operate thousands of miles away from home.

One significant factor in the U.S.’s outreach to Palau and similar nations is their continued diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Palau and several other Oceanic states are among the few nations that still maintain formal ties with Taiwan, a point that underscores the importance of these alliances.

Recently, the United States announced that Coast Guard ships would have the authority to independently enforce maritime regulations in Palau’s exclusive economic zone without the presence of a Palauan officer. Although the agreement did not explicitly mention China, Palauan President Surangel S. Whipps Jr. emphasized the need for an increased U.S. military presence to deter Beijing’s “unwanted activities” in its coastal waters.

Gray highlighted the practical benefits of such agreements, stating, “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.”

Similar agreements have been reached with authorities in the Federated States of Micronesia and Papua New Guinea in 2022, as these nations seek to compete with China for influence in the Indo-Pacific.

Chinas President Xi Jinping walks beside Micronesia’s President David Panuelo (R) during a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on December 13, 2019. (Photo by NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images

As China expands its reach, it is also establishing military footholds abroad. Gray pointed to locations like the Manus Island naval base in Papua New Guinea, Blackrock in Fiji, and Luganville wharf in Vanuatu as areas of Chinese interest. These locations hold strategic value akin to what the Japanese had during World War II, making them attractive to the Chinese.

China’s influence appears to be growing in the Solomon Islands since the Pacific nation switched its recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019. Recent reports suggest that China is developing military bases in the Solomon Islands, further escalating tensions in the region.

Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific security chair at the Hudson Institute, warned that if the United States and its allies cannot uphold the rules and institutions they helped establish in the region, China may impose its own rules and standards.

These concerns include issues such as illegal and environmentally destructive fishing, resource extraction, bribery, and large-scale infrastructure projects that primarily benefit the Chinese Communist Party, often at the expense of local populations.

Kelley Currie emphasized that the United States should not underestimate China’s ability to make inroads into the region and called for a more proactive approach in building and maintaining relationships with these countries.

The U.S. has a unique relationship with Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia, exemplified by the Compacts of Free Association. These agreements grant the U.S. the ability to establish military bases on these islands while denying similar privileges to other countries in exchange for visa-free immigration and security and defense responsibilities.

However, these treaties are set to expire in 2023 and 2024, prompting the Biden administration to allocate significant resources to secure renegotiations and dissuade these nations from succumbing to China’s economic and diplomatic overtures.

The history of U.S. involvement in these islands has not been without its challenges, with decades of nuclear testing, construction, and refueling causing significant environmental damage and fueling grievances among the local populations. Experts stress the importance of avoiding replicating China’s authoritarian approach and ensuring that the outcomes benefit the people of these nations.

In closing, Patrick Cronin emphasized that the United States should remain engaged globally, as disengagement can be more dangerous than active involvement, but should not aim to become a global police force. The National Security Council has not yet responded to the DCNF’s request for comment on these developments.

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