September 2023

China’s uphill task

As governments prepare for November’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders’ Meeting in San Francisco, they could wisely reflect upon an iconic war memorial outside of the Pentagon.

The sculpture depicts US Marines hoisting the Stars and Stripes on the remote and uninhabited Pacific island of Iwo Jima.

That single battle against Japan in 1945 cost the lives of seven thousand troops, and the message is that the United States will protect its values anywhere in the world, however remote that place might be.

The Pacific War ended 78 years ago this month. But, once again, as the US counters another rising Asian power, far-flung islands of the Pacific Ocean are attracting strategic focus.

And it is among these tiny states with smaller populations than a rural Asian town that China may begin to understand how much it has yet to learn regarding the skills of world domination.

The Pacific islands pepper a vast ocean, stretching from Asia to the Americas, known in the Cold War as the American Lake. China intends to weaken US control there and, in the past decade, has invested much in trying to woo Pacific islanders into its way of thinking.

But winning long-term loyal allegiance is very different from building shiny infrastructure, and Beijing has set itself an uphill task.

The 65 million square mile area comprises 14 independent nations. Of those, 11 are members of the British-led Commonwealth. Four of those, or some 40 per cent, recognise Taiwan over China.

Three are not their own countries, but the sovereign territory of France.  Others are associated or dependent territories of New Zealand, Australia and the United States.

Chinese values and culture have little historical footprint at all.

Given a choice, most islanders would opt for a meeting with King Charles at Buckingham Palace than one with President Xi Jinping in Zhongnanhai, or a visit to Disneyland over one to the Great Wall.

With massive US military bases in Hawaii, Guam, South Korea and Japan, new or revived ones in Australia and the Philippines and a swathe of security arrangements, denting American domination will be a near impossible task.

United States military commanders view the Pacific in terms of its islands, dividing it defensively into three island chains. The first runs from Japan to Malaysia; the second from Japan to Papua New Guinea; and the third from Hawaii through Fiji to New Zealand.

The US began as a Pacific power in 1898 when its defeat of Spain in the Caribbean War gave it control of the Philippines. Since then, it has gathered vast experience in forging alliances, exerting influence, projecting power and fighting Pacific wars.

China has a nano-fraction of that knowledge.

Initial attempts to woo islanders has given it a series of low-level agreements with a handful of states. But a proposal to set up a regionwide deal with ten governments won little support and fell through.

More damagingly, there have been open diplomatic spats with Chinese officials accused of bullying and making heavy-handed threats.

Last year,in a move that set alarm bells ringing in Washington, Beijing succeeded in signing a security agreement with the Solomon Islands.

America’s response was swift and unequivocal.

It drew up a far more wide-ranging defence agreement with neighbouring and bigger Papua New Guinea, which allows Us warships unfettered access to that country’s ports and waters.

In a twist of irony, when signing the defence pact, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was driven in from the airport along a brand new six-lane motorway built by China.

Gambling that they can continue to accept Chinese infrastructure alongside American security, the doctrine of these Pacific islands is to be ‘friends to all and enemies to none’.

There is an old adage that if two parties want something, they either share it or fight for it.

Deep within the Pentagon lies a highly classified and constantly updated war plan aimed at containing China’s expansion across the Pacific.

To get a sense, Beijing’s military strategists need only refer to the now public War Plan Orange mapped out over many decades to counter the rise of Japan in the early 20th century– a plan that included the taking of Iwo Jima.

If Beijing has any doubt about American resolve in the Pacific, it need only refer back to that  Iwo Jima war memorial outside of the Pentagon.

But if Sino-American sharing can take root, thesetough, remote, sparsely populated islands could become a model for wider arrangements throughout the Indo-Pacific.