September 22, 2020 | Washington Examiner

Why skepticism, not China, may be the greatest threat to US Pacific strategy

September 22, 2020 | Washington Examiner

Why skepticism, not China, may be the greatest threat to US Pacific strategy

Washington finds itself playing diplomatic catch-up as Beijing continues to deepen its influence across the Pacific. Case in point: Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s late August trip to Palau was clearly designed to signal his intent to shore up once-vibrant U.S. alliances throughout the region. With visits by senior U.S. officials few and far between, Esper faced the formidable task of defending the administration’s interest as more than a momentary effort to compensate for years of neglect. On this front, Pacific island leaders have every right to be skeptical, believing that the United States only rediscovered the region after its belated recognition of China’s successful outreach.

Contrary to headlines about the importance of new Department of Defense investments in the region, America’s success in the Western Pacific will ultimately rise and fall based on positive political outcomes as much as it will by military ones.

For years, Beijing has been all too happy to fill the regional void left by the U.S., having recognized the immense value of the area’s resource rich oceans, as well as how a permanent Chinese presence in the Western Pacific could complicate America’s ability to respond to potential crises in Asia. In a sign of China’s deep interest in Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia, Beijing regularly dispatches senior policymakers, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, to meet with local officials, many of whom enjoy positive relationships with Chinese diplomats working out of fully staffed embassies across the region. What’s more, numerous construction projects bear the insignia of Chinese companies, having been completed under the umbrella of China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative.

China’s military interests in the South and Western have also recently taken center stage, raising alarm bells from Washington to Canberra. Periodic rumors regarding China’s possible pursuit of military bases in Vanuatu and/or Papua New Guinea, as well as a recent DoD report detailing China’s burgeoning military capabilities, have further magnified the United States’ predicament as it seeks to restore American credibility in the region.

As the world continues to reel from China’s COVID-19 deceptions, there is no better opportunity to make up for lost ground in the Western and South Pacific than during the United Nations General Assembly.

Love it or hate it, the United Nations system and the UNGA season in particular represent America’s best hope of quickly buttressing its many fragile alliances in the region. Even with this year’s virtual format, UNGA provides a unique opportunity for the leaders of Pacific Island states scattered across thousands of nautical miles to reach a broad audience and interact directly with senior U.S. officials. Having been previously outflanked, the U.S. is now positioned to underline the devastation wrought by the pandemic and China’s increasingly belligerent military posture in the South China Sea to call out Beijing for what it truly is – a neighborhood bully.

While denigrating China may feel good in the moment, it alone is unlikely to move the proverbial needle. Instead, members of the U.S. delegation should be prepared to humbly listen to Pacific Island leaders’ genuine concerns about climate change, unfair global trade practices, and the impact of China’s illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing on their economies and coastal waters. These issues, none of which are particularly new, have often been carelessly overlooked by America and its allies, with promised assistance never quite materializing.

More broadly, the U.S. and its allies, in close coordination with South China Sea claimant countries and their Pacific Island neighbors, should use UNGA as a venue to raise the unanimous 2016 ruling by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea invalidating China’s claims. While provocative, elevating the issue during UNGA would further demonstrate China’s disregard for international law and serve as an important test to determine whether the UN’s rulings continue to carry weight in a world increasingly dominated by a small number of great powers. In potentially limiting Beijing’s push into the South and Western Pacific, such a move would also spare Pacific Island leaders from themselves becoming future targets of China’s expanding piratical practices, which often consist of economic retaliation and confrontations on the high seas.

Beyond UNGA, the United States would be wise to put its people where its money is, in effect recognizing that Defense Department investments in the Pacific are but a first step in improving America’s standing. Successful political outcomes will depend on regular, high-level outreach to these countries, as well as prioritizing American diplomatic and economic engagement at important multi-lateral bodies such as the Pacific Island Forum and Association of Southeast Asian Nations. All eyes will of course be on the president and vice president, whose engagement in the region has been limited at best.

It is time for the U.S. to get back to basics in a region where its post-World War II dividends are dwindling by the day. For all of its flaws, UNGA represents the West’s best hope to capitalize on growing concerns about China’s malign ambitions and flagrant disregard for international norms. In doing so, the United States and its allies may just have an opportunity to win over skeptical Pacific Island audiences and shore up its circle of allies in this increasingly dangerous part of the world.

Craig Singleton, a national security expert and former U.S. diplomat, is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he also contributes to the FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power and Center on Economic and Financial Power.


China Indo-Pacific International Organizations Military and Political Power U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy