For evidence of China’s game plan for influencing the Pacific islands, look to the South China Sea and what the rising Asian power has been doing in spades, said Congressman Ed Case.
Beijing’s goal is to “assert sovereignty over the South China Sea and influence a free and open Indo-Pacific “—and not in a good way, the Hawaii Democrat said.
“China would use the same model on the Pacific islands, and that would be detrimental—not only to the Pacific islands, but to our national defense and to our allies as well, ” Case told the U.S. Institute of Peace in July.
What the U.S. military is trying to accomplish “is that our potential adversaries, primarily China, do not gain a foothold in the Pacific which they can utilize as a base from which to threaten our national defenses, ” he said.
Case in late July cointroduced the Boosting Long-Term U.S. Engagement in the Pacific, or BLUE Pacific, Act, seeking $1 billion each year over five years to establish a long-term strategy that expands U.S. diplomatic efforts in the Pacific islands, increases security cooperation on illegal fishing, deepens trade and supports regional economic and social development.
The bill was reintroduced this month in a new session of Congress with reduced funding : almost $1 billion over five years—which Case’s office said is a “more realistic assessment of what the programs can absorb over the time frame and still represent substantial increases over current appropriations.”
“I am optimistic that our proposal is the right approach for our country at the right time, and will be adopted either as a stand-alone law or as part of broader initiatives for the Indo-Pacific, ” Case said in an emailed statement.
Fellow co-sponsors of the BLUE Pacific Act noted the importance of increased aid for Pacific islands that have shared values and, in some cases, formal associations with the United States, but also used phrasing for the area such as “key yet too-often overlooked.”
“For years, we have regrettably drifted away from this part of the world with which we share longstanding historical ties and which serves as an essential link between our nation and the Indo-Pacific, ” Congressman Ami Bera, a California Democrat, said in a BLUE Pacific Act release.
Returning to the warning from Case about what some Pacific islands could become, there is China’s involvement in the South China Sea.
In July then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a memo that “Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them.”
In March up to 220 Chinese vessels were spotted moored at Whitsun Reef about 200 miles west of the Philippine island of Palawan—well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, according to The Associated Press. China, the Philippines and Vietnam claim the reef.
The U.S. Embassy accused China of using its “maritime militia to intimidate, provoke, and threaten other nations, which undermines peace and security in the region.”
“We stand with the Philippines, our oldest treaty ally in Asia, ” the U.S. Embassy in Manila said in a statement, the AP reported.
That same month, the Congressional Research Service said China’s actions in the South China Sea—including extensive island-building as well as actions by its maritime forces to assert claims against the Philippines and Vietnam—”have heightened concerns among U.S. observers that China is gaining effective control “
of the region.
More easterly, China has new plans to upgrade an airfield on a remote Kiribati island 1, 864 miles southwest of Hawaii, with one official quoted by news organization Reuters as saying, “The island would be a fixed aircraft carrier ” for China.
The Pacific islands region stretches from Hawaii and Rapa Nui (Easter Island ) to Palau and New Caledonia, with their collective maritime exclusive economic zones covering more of Earth’s surface than the combined land areas of China and Russia.
Case’s office said the United States has been a “consistent albeit quiet partner in the region, ” providing over $5 billion in assistance over the past 20 years.
The reintroduced bill notes that the “United States is a Pacific country with longstanding ties and shared values and interests with the Pacific Islands, “
including through the Compacts of Free Association with the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau.
The sovereign states receive U.S. economic assistance and give the U.S. the prerogative to operate military bases on their soil.
As an example, the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Test Site operates on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu also are included in the Pacific islands group.
China is “directly interested in expanding its power and influence—and I would submit, creating dependence in the Pacific islands, ” Case said in July.
“I don’t think that comes out of any sense of humanitarian concern for the Pacific islands. I think it comes out of a sense of competition with the United States.”
While U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has made “crystal clear ” its national security concerns, “that cannot be exclusive, and we cannot simply assert our own power there and expect everything to be OK, ” Case said. “This has to be paired with very strong nonmilitary engagement of Pacific islands.”
Case said Pacific islands in general prefer to have a partnership with the U.S. over China.
Ambassadors for Palau, Australia, Japan, the Marshall Islands and New Zealand ; the charge d’affaires for Papua New Guinea ; a representative of Taiwan ; and President David Panuelo of the Federated States of Micronesia lauded the BLUE Pacific Act.
“We appreciate (Congressman Case’s ) continued dedication to these important issues and his support of the people of Micronesia, ” Panuelo said in a release. “We also appreciate Congress’s continued focus on the Pacific region, as the Pacific Island countries remain vital partners to the U.S. and our mutual national security interests.”
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