Why a crisis in the Pacific islands matters for Washington and Beijing

THE HILL – By Alexander B. Gray, opinion contributor — 02/16/21 11:00 AM

Last week, five Pacific islands countries withdrew from the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), the region’s premier multilateral organization. Collectively comprising the sub-region of Micronesia, the countries of Palau, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, and Nauru announced their intent to leave the PIF, citing the organization’s failure to adequately represent the Micronesian states in the PIF’s top leadership role.

While the decision of some of the world’s smallest countries to leave a multilateral body few Americans have ever heard of generated — predictably — minimal attention in Washington, the withdrawal of the Micronesian states from the PIF will have a significant, and potentially lasting, impact on U.S. interests. It is also likely to strengthen China’s influence in a region where Beijing is steadily increasing its economic and political sway.

Beijing sees the Pacific islands — often called the “Second Island Chain” — much as Imperial Japan did prior to the Second World War: as strategically significant providers of key natural resources. China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative has been particularly active in the Pacific islands, leaving far too many of the world’s least developed countries with unsustainable debt, unusable or underperforming infrastructure projects, and a growing Chinese influence on their domestic politics. The recent Chinese effort to secure a switch in diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China by Taiwan’s handful of remaining regional allies is but one example of the latter.

Strategically, the “Second Island Chain” controls access to the open waters of the Central Pacific and the sea lanes to the Western Hemisphere. As a senior allied government official once noted to me, a map of Imperial Japan’s Pacific islands bases in 1941 could almost perfectly overlay Beijing’s areas of most intense economic and political activity today. Public reports have often speculated about China’s interest in a permanent military presence in the “Second Island Chain”; if accurate, U.S. supply lines to its forward deployed forces in East Asia and the Western Pacific, not to mention significant global trade, would be placed at risk.

While views toward China and the U.S. and its allies Australia and New Zealand are as varied as the Pacific islands themselves, the five Micronesian states have traditionally been the most skeptical of Beijing and eager to work with Washington and its partners. Indeed, Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands are bound to the U.S. through Compacts of Free Association that ensure unrestricted access to their territory by the U.S. military in exchange for visa-free entry to the United States and American financial support.



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