Opinion: China-here, there and everywhere

File Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs Marshall Islands

The end of the compact negotiations between Ambassador Joseph Yun and the freely associated states is only 50% of the struggle to completion. 

The remainder is in the U.S Congress and dealing with the proposed compact funding. Decisions about the acceptable “top line” and whether it is mandatory spending or not will be made within the context of Republican-Democrat discussions about the budget. The more radical elements of the Republicans, who are in the ascendency in the U.S House of Representatives, will throw their weight behind reduced spending. 

The only weight being thrown in the opposite direction is not coming from favorable Democrats or mainstream Republicans. It is coming from concern over China. 

The “Chinese threat” is the main motivator for changing the nature of the negotiations last year. It is the backdrop for most conversations about defense and foreign affairs for the past year. How the Pacific fits into this discussion is what drives Washington. It certainly isn’t a basic concern over the Pacific islands. Prior to Chinese activities, the U.S interest in the Pacific was lukewarm at best and disinterested at worse. 

Last month, Jane Bocklage testified before the subcommittee on Indo-Pacific for the Foreign Affairs Committee. As the deputy to Ambassador Yun in his negotiating responsibilities, she noted that without the proposed funding for the FAS, our Micronesian neighbors will be subjected to the “predatory behaviour, coercive behaviour” by the Chinese. 

The package is US$7.1 billion over 20 years including US$634 million to support continuing the U.S Postal Service for our neighbors. That is actually a subsidy given to the USPS.

On a side note, all of the FAS use mail-in balloting from many places in the United States, and of course, Guahan. Republicans would be inadvertently supporting “mail-in voting.”

 There are also some joint referral issues related to the processing of the new agreements. The first hearing was at the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where the State Department takes center stage. Presumably, when the House Natural Resources Committee takes it up as an “insular affairs” matter, the Department of the Interior will take center stage. 

The agreements are negotiated by the State Department but the disbursement and management of funds will be handled by Interior. Of course, the absent dog in the room is the Department of Defence which has secured some facility rights in recent negotiations.

The Chinese threat is also the main line of explanation for the military’s zigzagging through Guahan land issues. Originally, the military was going to lease lands for renewable energy projects and there is always a conversation about the return of excess lands. 

However, according to Rear Admiral Ben Nicholson, the Chinese threats have changed all this. The land is needed for 19 anti-missile battery sites and Governor Lou Leon Guerrero’s proposal for a medical campus comes with conditions connected to military uses.

The American response has been to confront Chinese influence on the islands through a 21st Century U.S.-Pacific Island Partnership. The more robust and financially significant response has been to build and strengthen relationships such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, commonly known as Quad, which includes India, the United States, Japan and Australia. 

There is also AUKUS, which supports Australia’s nuclear submarine capability through a collaboration with the United Kingdom and the United States. 

 The recently concluded expanded Cope North exercises out of Guam and throughout the expanse of the Western Pacific provided evidence of these efforts. Even France became part of the exercises. 

There is a reunion of sorts among all former colonial powers. Japan, the United Kingdom, France and the United States are all working in tandem to defend freedom of the seas and self-determination.

The Chinese threat is aflame in Washington and is part of the conversation of TikTok, the origin of Covid-19, the technological threat and, of course, the “strategic threat” of Chinese military forces. It seems as if almost every dimension of public policy in Washington is tied to China.

Beijing is a “pacing threat” as well as the champion of “autocracy” in government ideology. Add to this, charges of Chinese industrial espionage and threats to take Taiwan by force and it feels like we are all under some kind of Chinese targeting.

Micronesian President David Panuelo’s departing statement about Chinese interference and the Guam legislature’s sudden reversal on the burn pit issue under pressure from Admiral Nicholson makes it seem like we are comfortably part of the “China alert and beware” system. 

It is a curious phenomenon in which the bullseye of the target is not looking for ways to reduce conflict. Apparently, we are happy to be both the tip of the spear and the bullseye.

But there are other voices in the world. We assume that we are only enhancing the deterrence to a potential Chinese attack and blocking Chinese initiatives. Others think that American movements form a kind of enhanced or aggressive deterrence which unwittingly enhances the opportunity for conflict.

Moreover, it is accompanied by a kind of rhetoric that prepares us to support almost anything. We have been down this road before in Vietnam and in the Iraqi/Afghanistan wars. In those conflicts, we learned about the “domino theory,” the “axis of evil” and “weapons of mass destruction.” 

At the end of the day, the United States did not alter the outcome. The main difference this time is that conflict with China will not be through surrogates. It will be between the main actors. 

Unfortunately, the initial stages of such a conflict will be played out here in these islands….PACNEWS

Dr Robert Underwood is the former president of the University of Guam and a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

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