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Long live the long-lived: What does countering China actually mean?

Updated: Mar 11



 


Pacific Reflections By Gabriel McCoard

Allow me to propose an unpopular idea: Forget about the Pacific islands. From a strategic standpoint, at least.

  

Before you send me hate mail, let me explain.

Every month, if not more frequently, another media outlet lets loose another article about the fragile state of the Pacific. America idly standing by, watching out of indifference, if not sheer incompetence, as Chinese emissaries loaded with little more than blank checkbooks steadily eat away at our military preparedness and just plain superiority.


The Indo-Pacific Order – a term I didn’t hear much before China started building islands and ramming fishing vessels – sinks a bit deeper into the quicksand of uncertainty.


So an island that the world calls a “republic,” but that without an economy imported courtesy of foreign aid donors is less sovereign than a container ship, gets cozy with and receives money from China. A hardened strip of tarmac that might charitably be called an airport suddenly becomes strategic because it lies within jet-striking distance of some vital American-infused Indo-Pacific interest, or perhaps, the deep seabed is a potential source of whatever mineral can fuel an economy and the next doomsday weapon.


So what.


The U.S. entered into three Compacts of Free Association after all, but I think it holds true for other nations.


So what if China invests in nations friendly to America? Over the past 20 years, Chinese firms have invested billions in the U.S.— close to $200 billion by some estimates— and vice versa. For all the intrigue over countries shifting alliances between Taiwan and China, the U.S. recognized China in 1979, after all, and led the way for the rest of the world to do the same.


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Despite the thunder over the metaphorical and literal horizons, the parties in the Great Pacific Diplomatic Garbage Patch are following a script written over a century ago and tested 80 years ago. For generations, the U.S. has envisioned the Pacific Ocean as an extended backyard, and China has viewed it as its extended front yard. As in a security buffer bigger than the nation itself.


Well, before we were concerned with China it was Japan whose extended front yard worried America, but same idea.


Just consider the headlines over the past several years. The Pacific Islands Forum on the brink of collapse. China will exploit it. Then the PIF members reconciled. A Chinese Autonomous Zone in the Marshall Islands. The ringleaders are now in a U.S. federal prison. Promises for improved infrastructure that have not yet been built. A plebiscite for an independent Chuuk State. It’s on hold.


That last specter, a separate Chuuk State (I don’t think “Independent Chuuk” could be accurate) is the most intriguing. Imagine becoming a breakaway enclave susceptible to Chinese influence, one with deep-water harbors capable of sheltering big ships, throwing the U.S.-Federated States of Micronesia Compact of Free Association, and the rights of Chuukese living in the U.S., into total disarray.


Consider further the prospect of Chuukese in the U.S. forming a government in exile and, after asserting themselves as the legitimate voice of the state, contesting the very validity of that plebiscite.


The COFAs are flawed. In fact, they are deeply flawed. Between the U.S. that has shown only indifference to the needs of the people of the COFA states, an indifference that only COFA nation leaders have outdone, to the economies that depend on outsiders both for labor and what little economic activity there is, to schools that cannot teach and hospitals that cannot heal, to the valve of immigration that has enabled Micronesian citizens to be citizens in name only, often the only saving grace to the compacts is that they’re better than nothing.


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Even though members of the U.S. Congress themselves say “compact renegotiation,” the only thing being renegotiated is money and not the actual compact. The compacts are not only permanent until a party formally withdraws from it, but they are in fact a two-way street. Citizens of COFA nations have the right to enter the U.S, and the U.S. has military rights over the COFA nation’s territory.


Considering that Congress cannot even act on its own priorities, be it the Mexican border, whether to assist Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, or even if it wants any immigration into the country, a bit of permanence can be a good thing for diplomatic and military predictability.


With a Congress that cannot even govern itself, I’m not sure what countering China in the Pacific really means, especially for those who most need change.


Is compact funding a national security concern? Certainly. A humanitarian one? Definitely.


Should the U.S. hurry up and fund the compacts? Well of course it should.


But I suspect it’s just a vote for continuing an imperfect status quo.


Gabriel McCoard is an attorney who previously worked in Palau and Chuuk State. Send feedback to gabrieljmccoard@hotmail.com.




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