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You snooze you lose

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

China is a relentless leviathan and there are governments that would embrace it— if the price is right


Leaders of U.S. territories and freely associated states testify before the House Committee on Natural Resources during a field hearing held at Hilton Resort Guam and Spa on Aug, 24, 2023. Photo by Mar-Vic Cagurangan

Pacific island leaders came with individual laundry lists of things for Washington to do to win their devotion during a rare field congressional hearing held by the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources on Guam last month. On top of the list is federal dollars, the anchor of their symbiotic relationship.

And the U.S. is willing to give. After all, it is competing with China, which managed to expand its diplomatic footprint in the Pacific by splashing cash along with its Belt and Road Initiative.


The U.S. aims to outdo China. But first, the congressional delegation wanted to hear how badly China has been misbehaving.


Very bad, the island leaders told them. China launches cyberattacks, bribes politicians, interferes with domestic policy-making, engages in espionage through “research vessels,” exploits marine resources, and strong-arms governments into ditching Taiwan.


China is a relentless leviathan. But no matter how repugnant it may be, there are governments that would embrace it— if the price is right. Pacific islands care less about ideology. They are independent thinkers who make pragmatic decisions. Hence the common theme of the island leaders' testimonies at the congressional hearing: “Look away and the bogeyman will get us.”


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“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,” Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero said.


Guam, of course, can’t be overlooked. It is the tip of the military spear. But “Volt Typhoon” has had a dry run to see how China can operate under the radar.


“In the Northern Marianas, during times of economic hardship and vulnerability, we too have turned to Chinese investment for solutions. Chinese investors were always conveniently there when we needed them, offering new industries and revenue sources,” CNMI Gov. Arnold Palacios said.



“Most private sector investment is from China. Some of our people, including some of our most important leaders, are tempted by its offers. They see China as the best opportunity for the private sector growth we want,” Palau’s Finance Minister Kaleb Udui Jr. said.


“The radioactive waste (left behind by the U.S. after the nuclear tests) remains a serious irritant in our relations that has the potential for being exploited by China,” Marshall Islands Minister of Foreign Affairs Jack Ading said.


As for the FSM, Deputy Foreign Affairs Secretary Ricky Cantero didn’t have to say much about China. Former President David Panuelo had said it all in his iconic 13-page letter that detailed China’s nefarious activities in the Pacific nation.

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The congressional delegation ought to know that these are not fantastic scenarios. The China challenge is real. As Gov. Palacios said, “There is a strategic edge in all of the Chinese Communist Party’s activities. It destabilizes island communities and cuts against America’s influence and security in the region.”


The U.S. has come to this point, cramming after China fanned out its influence in the region. The Solomon Islands and Kiribati dumped Taiwan and built an alliance with China in 2019. It happened when Washington wasn’t looking. The U.S. embassy in Honiara was shut down in 1993.


Last year, Honiara and Beijing quietly signed a security agreement that is suspected to have opened a portal for the Chinese forces' foray into the Pacific island region.


This year, the U.S. began opening embassies in the Solomons, Tonga and Vanuatu. Better late than never.


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At the end of the congressional hearing, committee members left with a long list of demands from Pacific islands to process: immediate COFA approval, COFA cost reimbursement, H2B visa cap exemption, funding for a new hospital, CNMI Covenant review, nuclear test compensation and so on and so forth.


But the U.S. and the Pacific islands must aim for long-term solutions and organic policies not driven by fear of the bogeyman.


“The real challenge that emerges for the Pacific islands is a profound one,” Dr. Transform Aqorau, legal adviser at the Marshall Island Marine Resources Authority, wrote in his op-ed piece titled “The complex dance of diplomacy in the Pacific Islands,” published by the Pacific Island News Association Service.


“The question is not solely about how to respond to a singular decision by a major donor, but about how to chart a course toward economic independence,” Aqorau said. “It's a journey that demands innovative solutions, robust domestic policies, and an unwavering commitment to self-determination.”



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