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Island leaders tell congressional committee about Chinese threat

Leaders of U.S. territories and the freely associated states testify during a congressional heanng held by the House Cimmittee on Natural Resources at the Hilton Resort and Spa Guam on Thursday. Photo by Mar-Vic Cagurangan

Pacific Island Times staff

Witnesses testifying before a congressional committee on Guam Thursday said security concerns in the Pacific Islands extend beyond military matters and encompass economic, education and infrastructure issues as well.

The House Natural Resources Committee was exploring the importance of Pacific territories and freely associated states in the U.S. relationship with China.

China has offered significant financial benefits to vulnerable nations in exchange for political support in the region, witnesses testified, and that could complicate relations with the United States and other neighbors.

"We're here today at a pivotal point in our nation's history," said Arkansas Republican Rep. Bruce Westerman, who chairs the committee. "Less than 2,000 miles away lies a threat to America and our allies. The People's Republic of China, under the tyranny of the Communist Chinese or the Chinese Communist Party, not only seeks to challenge American leadership, but it's aggressively working to undermine the democratic values and institutions that we cherish."

The visit was arranged by Guam Del. James Moylan, who serves on the committee.

Guam Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero said China's "increasing influence in the region has raised serious, threatening and real concerns. China's efforts to expand its reach to other Pacific Island countries through infrastructure projects, political maneuvering and social economic coercion have repercussions for the Pacific islands including Guam."

She said China presents a potential threat to regional stability as it attempts "to exert control over the region concealed in otherwise benign diplomatic agreements."

Northern Marianas Gov. Arnold Palacios said China has moved aggressively to fill perceived voids in U.S. economic assistance and to capitalize on vulnerabilities in the Pacific.

"We see this aggression in massive investment in infrastructure and economic development," he said. "We see it in land grabs and fisheries expansion. We see it in unauthorized research vessels lurking around our undersea fiber optic cables. We see it in organized crime, public corruption and political interference."

He said these activities destabilize island communities and hurt U.S. influence and security in the region.

Palacios said China has had an economic influence in the Northern Marianas for about 40 years, and that influence becomes more pronounced in times of economic hardship.

"Chinese investors who are always conveniently there when we needed them, offering new industries and revenue sources," he said.

Palau Minister of Finance Kaleb Udui Jr. said the United States is putting early warning radar in that country, extending a runway and considering other facilities.

"There appears to have been a Chinese effort to derail one of the radars through a proposal to locate a hotel and casino next door," he said. "That proposal was not only more attractive to the local community, but it played to fears that U.S. military facilities will make Palau a target as it was in World War II."

Udui said Palau is linked to the United States and stands with Taiwan.

"Continuation, however, cannot be taken for granted," he said. "China has worked to undermine our relationship and has made inroads."

During an impasse over a review of the Compact of Free Association, China "began to subject Palau to economic carrots and sticks to shift our alliances," Udui said.

"During the U.S. impasse, China quickly ramped up tourist visits from a handful to two-thirds of the 160,000 tourists a year. It bought hotel rooms far in advance, crowding out visitors from other nations. Then it said it would cut off the flow if we didn't shift," he said. "We didn't shift, and it did cut off those flows."

Since the end of the pandemic, China has offered to send Palau as many tourists as that nation can accommodate "and establish a huge new industry in Palau, but again only if we shift alliances," he said.


Committee members asked Leon Guerrero about reports of Chinese cyberattacks on Guam, and the governor said she had little direct knowledge beyond what has been reported in the media, but it was not hard to envision the chaos an attack on the telecommunication system could cause.

She said during and after the recent typhoon, communications were knocked out by a natural disaster, leading to confusion and frustration for residents.

"Can you imagine if all our airport on our port authority is paralyzed because of those attacks?" she said. "We will not be able to survive."

Leon Guerrero said the key to security in the region is an educated workforce, a quality healthcare system, infrastructure resiliency, digital modernization and stable trade with Asia.

"The question before us is simple," Leon Guerrero said. "Who should shape the rules of future trade in the Indo-Pacific? If the U.S. does not engage actively, China will, writing a future that will never put Americans first."

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