In becoming the first sitting U.S. Secretary of State to visit the Federated States of Micronesia earlier this month, Mike Pompeo hailed the island nations of the Pacific as “small islands” which “are big strongholds of freedom.”
Washington has long held sway over the region, but analysts say China is now seeking to use its economic clout as a cudgel to beat the nations into submission.
A recent report by Rand Corp. describes Pacific island nations as “tantamount to a power-projection superhighway running through the heart of the North Pacific into Asia.”
China “is increasingly viewing the Pacific islands as critically important toward complicating U.S. military intervention in a Taiwan, South China Sea or East China Sea contingency,” senior defense analyst Derek Grossman said. “As a result, in recent years we have seen Beijing focusing on the Pacific through diplomatic and economic means, mainly through the Belt and Road Initiative, to further ingratiate itself with Pacific island countries.”
Most recently, the government of the Solomon Islands was preparing to switch diplomatic recognition from U.S.-backed Taiwan to China.
“For the first time since the island-hopping days at the end of World War II, tiny Pacific states are once again strategic concerns for the U.S. and an Asian power,” Chris Horton wrote in an Aug. 20 analysis for Nikkei Asian Review. “Both Washington and Beijing are increasingly engaging this long-overlooked region, aiming to increase their diplomatic clout and secure strategic advantages.”
China is engaging Pacific island nations via its Belt and Road initiative, which appeals to some of the region’s leader, including Manesseh Sogavare, who took over as prime minister of the Solomon Islands in April.
Solomon Islands is in dire need of infrastructure upgrades, and China has been willing to provide loan assistance for projects in the region. China has bankrolled an $87 million wharf project in Vanuatu; an $85 million road development project in Papua New Guinea; and a $136 million road development project in Fiji.
The Guardian reported in early June that Sogavare’s foreign minister, Jeremiah Manele, told Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison that his government would decide whether to break ties with Taiwan in favor of China within 100 days, which would mean before mid-September at the latest.