Panuelo: Chinese spy ships snooping US military assets on Guam
Updated: Mar 11
By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
(First of a series)
On Jan. 4, 2019, officials of the Federated States of Micronesia and Chinese diplomats gathered aboard China’s “research vessel” KeXue, marking the first in a series of events to celebrate the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two nations.
“This research vessel is the platform for researchers to address the world’s most pressing marine science issues,” according to Prof. Wang Fan, director of Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Oceanology, which operates KeXue.
FSM President David Panuelo said he has since called a total moratorium on the vessel’s activity after learning that the ship was using the nation’s waters to conduct espionage on U.S. security installations and assets as part of Beijing’s “political warfare” in the region.
“The weather balloon in the United States was a disguise for espionage; research vessels in our ocean territory are likewise disguised to hide espionage,” Panuelo said in a letter to the FSM Congress. “We are aware of (People’s Republic of China’s) activity in our exclusive economic zone whose purpose includes mapping our maritime territory for potential resources, and mapping our territory for submarine travel paths."
The outgoing president’s 12-page tell-all letter detailed China’s furtive activities in the FSM, including its attempts to manipulate local officials to pursue its clandestine plans.
“We are aware of PRC activity in our exclusive economic zone whose purpose includes communicating with other PRC assets so as to help ensure that, in the event a missile, or group of missiles, ever needed to land a strike on the U.S. territory of Guam that they would be successful in doing so,” Panuelo said.
"The FSM is an unwilling target of PRC-sponsored political warfare and grey zone activity," he said.
“When we sent our own patrol boats to our own exclusive economic zone to check on PRC research vessel activity, the PRC sent a warning for us to stay away,” the president added.
The FSM, which is freely associated with the United States, is one of the Pacific countries with diplomatic relations with China. In recent years, however, Panuelo has been vocal about his displeasure over Beijing’s attempts to put pressure on other Pacific island nations.
Panuelo disclosed China's attempt to use the diplomatic channels with the FSM to take control of the nation’s territorial waters through a proposed memorandum of understanding on “Deepening the Blue Economy,” which was framed to support Blue Prosperity Micronesia and the resulting Marine Spatial Plan for the FSM.
As designed, Panuelo said, the proposed agreement included suspicious provisions.
“Among these red flags included that the FSM would open the door for the PRC to begin acquiring control over our nation's fiber optic cables (i.e. our telecommunications infrastructure) as well as our ports,” the outgoing FSM president said. “Both our fiber optic cables and our ports are strategic assets whose integrity is necessary for our continued sovereignty.”
The FSM has rejected a Chinese company’s bid for the East Micronesia Cable Project, which will provide internet capacity to Nauru, Kiribati and Kosrae, connected to the existing Hannon-Armstrong or HANTRU-1 cable in Pohnpei.
HANTRU-1 , which is primarily used by the U.S. government, connects the Reagan Test Site in the Kwajalein Atoll to Guam.
First proposed in 2017, the project hit a snag when the FSM reconsidered the awarding of a contract to lay sensitive undersea communications cables to the former Huawei Technologies Co. Marine Networks, a Chinese company now called HMN Technologies.
“To be clear: the entire reason the East Micronesia Cable Project, for example, is funded by the United States, Australia and Japan, is because of the importance of secure telecommunications infrastructure free from potential compromise,” Panuelo said.
“I had advised our Cabinet that we would deny the Deepening the Blue Economy MOU in June of 2022. The issue was brought up again by the PRC-side, and in December 2022 I learned that we were mere hours from its signing,” he added.
Panuelo said he officially rejected the MOU during Chinese Ambassador Huang Zheng’s farewell dinner with FSM Telecommunications Secretary Kandhi Elieisar.
But Zheng tried to sneak behind his back. “The ambassador suggested to the secretary that he ought to sign the MOU anyway, and that my knowing about it—in my capacity as head of state and head of government— was not necessary,” Panuelo said.
“To say it again: the same ambassador who relentlessly shouts that the PRC does not interfere in the governance of other countries was himself actively attempting to interfere in our country's governance, so as to accomplish his mandate beneficial to the PRC but not to the FSM,” he added.
China’s special envoy, Qian Bo, pushed the same rejected MOU again during his recent visit to the FSM, Panuelo said.
"At worst in the short term, it means we sell our country and our sovereignty for temporary personal benefit. At worst in the long-term, it means we are, ourselves, active participants in allowing a possible war to occur in our region, and very likely our own islands and our neighbors on Guam and Hawaii, where we ourselves will be indirectly responsible for the Micronesian lives lost," Panuelo said.