As part of its bid to expand its influence across the world, China is emerging as an important diplomatic and economic partner for the small and far-flung Pacific Islands countries, but its engagement comes with challenges. As the economies of the Pacific Islands countries reel in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese loans and aid are likely to become even more important in the coming months. China’s growing footprint in the region also brings a strategic challenge to the United States’ doorstep at a time when the U.S.-China relationship is under considerable strain.

A man unloads farmed seaweed onto a drying dock in Beniamina Island, part of the Solomon Islands, June 5, 2018. In many parts of the Solomon Islands the land has disappeared, drowned by heaving currents and rising seas. (Adam Ferguson/The New York Times)
A man unloads farmed seaweed onto a drying dock in Beniamina Island, part of the Solomon Islands, June 5, 2018. In many parts of the Solomon Islands the land has disappeared, drowned by heaving currents and rising seas. (Adam Ferguson/The New York Times)

Just as in the South China Sea, where China has sought to control one of the world’s busiest sea lanes, U.S. Rep. Ed Case (D-HI) predicts Beijing will use a similar model in the Pacific Islands. This would be “detrimental, not only to the Pacific Islands, but to our national defense and to our allies as well,” he warned while speaking at a U.S. Institute of Peace-hosted Bipartisan Congressional Dialogue.

The Pacific Islands region—a vast expanse that stretches from Easter Island in the east to Hawaii in the north to New Caledonia and Palau in the west to Tonga in the south—are very much in China’s sights.

Noting that China is using every tool in its toolkit to expand its influence, Case said: “China is directly interested in expanding its power and influence and, I would submit, creating dependence in the Pacific Islands.”

This expansion of influence does not come “out of any sense of humanitarian concern for the Pacific Islands,” Case contended, adding that he thinks it comes “out of a sense of competition with the United States.”

A ‘Terrible Position’

China’s interest in the Pacific Islands puts the countries in the region in “a terrible position,” said Case. He believes these nations would prefer to have partnerships with the United States and its democratic friends and allies, with which they share democratic values. However, they may be forced to rely on an economic lifeline from an autocratic China as a result of U.S. neglect. “If we are going to ignore their needs for infrastructure and economic development … and China offers that, then that puts them to a terrible choice,” said Case.

While a U.S. ally like Australia, which counts China as its largest trading partner, is large enough to “walk that tightrope” between the United States and China, it is “a lot more difficult for a small country that has very, very limited resources to do that,” said Case. He said it is, therefore, important for the United States to not just engage the Pacific Islands, but understand their needs and ask how it can help. U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL), who joined the event toward the end, described the Pacific Islands region as critical for the United States. He advocated expanding the relationship with individual countries through the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, which invests in sectors, including energy, health care, critical infrastructure, and technology, in the developing world.

A Rising China

China’s rise has created unease as it relates to governance and potential infringement on sovereignty of other nations.

The United States has no problem with a China that takes its place in the world, said Case. But, he added, “We would really like it, obviously, if China would view it in their best interest to participate in a world order that respected the rule of law, that understood countries’ desires to maintain sovereignty, that respected basic democratic values.”

Case says the U.S. military, specifically U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, is trying to ensure that the United States’ competitors, particularly China, do not gain a military foothold in the Pacific from where they can threaten the United States and complicate its efforts to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific.

A report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in June 2018 found that a potential Chinese military base or facility in the South Pacific could “have implications for U.S. military presence and training in the Indo-Pacific and could pose obstacles to U.S. strategic access in the Pacific Islands.” Further, it would also affect Australia, New Zealand, and other key U.S. partners in the Pacific Island region.

“Such a development could expand China’s monitoring and surveillance capabilities in the region, helping Beijing mitigate U.S. military presence in the region,” the report’s authors wrote.

The United States’ relationship with the Pacific Islands needs to go beyond security issues, said Case. The U.S. military, he said, realizes that this relationship has to include “very strong non-military engagement with the Pacific Islands.” He suggested that the United States and the Pacific Islands countries find overlapping needs—economic, addressing climate change, maintaining sovereignty—on which to expand their relationship.

‘Just Show Up!’

While to a casual observer the area occupied by the Pacific Islands on a map may appear to be little more than ocean, Case pointed out that the islands and the exclusive economic zones taken together constitute an area that is larger than the land mass of Russia and China combined. “This is a huge part of our world that encompasses … common values, common history, common interests,” he said. “From the United States’ perspective, we are a Pacific country.”

Despite the importance of this region to the United States, Case said U.S. policy toward the Pacific Islands region has been haphazard. He recalled that when he asked a delegation of young leaders from the Pacific Islands what they want most from the United States their unanimous response was: “Just show up!”

U.S. interest in the Pacific Islands has started to build, in part spurred by the challenge posed by China. USIP President and CEO Nancy Lindborg, who moderated the discussion on July 22, said, “We are seeing levels of focus on the Pacific Islands that haven’t existed since the end of the Pacific War in 1945.”

U.S. President Donald J. Trump hosted the leaders of three Pacific Islands nations—the Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia—in May 2019. In August 2019, Mike Pompeo became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit the Federated States of Micronesia.

The choice of the leaders of the Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia for Trump’s meeting was no accident. The United States has unique bilateral relationships with these three Pacific Islands nations, which are collectively referred to as the Freely Associated States. Each nation has special agreements, known as Compacts of Free Association, with the United States.

These compacts offer the U.S. military exclusive access to the land, sea, and air routes of this region. In exchange, the United States provides financial assistance and other essential services to these countries. The United States and these three countries would agree that these compacts have been critical, said Case.

In the U.S. Congress, the growing interest in the Pacific Islands is reflected in the formation of the first bipartisan Congressional Pacific Islands Caucus, co-founded by Case and Yoho in 2019, along with several other colleagues.

The Threat of Climate Change

In 2019, a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change revealed that sea levels are rising at an accelerating pace as a consequence of climate change. Some island nations, such as Kiribati and the Marshall Islands, could even become inhabitable.

Case highlighted that the Pacific Islands nations have been at the forefront of sounding the alarm on climate change, particularly at the United Nations. They have also taken the lead on urging the United States to return to the Paris Climate Agreement.  

Case, who represents Hawaii, said the Pacific Islands see climate change as their number one threat. This concern, however, is not understood in Congress, he said. “I don’t think people [in Congress] fully appreciate the existential threat [climate change] presents to these nations whose international airport may be falling into the ocean,” he said.

Case said the United States needs to listen to the Pacific Islands on the issue of climate change and take heed because “as they go … it also indicates what is in store for parts of our country as well.”

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