Pacific islands a key US military buffer to China's ambitions

Representatives from the US, the Solomon Islands, Australia and Japan attend a ceremony on a US Navy ship on Sept 10, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY - China's push into the Pacific should compel the United States to strengthen its commitment to island states in the region, which are now in talks to renew a defence deal, to maintain a vital military buffer, a report released Tuesday by a US Congress-funded think tank said.

China has made progress in the Pacific on geostrategic goals that it has been unable to achieve elsewhere, said the report for the United States Institute for Peace.

This was a cause for concern but not alarm, it said. But the US should bolster support for island states in the north Pacific where it has the strongest historical ties.

The report comes ahead of a meeting between US President Joe Biden and a dozen Pacific island leaders next week, as Washington seeks to compete for influence with Beijing.

The Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and Palau are sovereign nations known as Freely Associated States (FAS), after signing compacts in the late 1980s that give the US defence responsibility and the right to military bases.

The compacts, which expire in 2023 and 2024, are being renegotiated. The report warned that these states could look to China for funding if negotiations fail.

"The vast FAS territorial seas, which span much of the northern Pacific, are an important strategic buffer between US defence assets in Guam and Hawaii and East Asian littoral waters," said the report, whose authors include Admiral Philip Davidson, a former commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, and Mr David Stilwell, a former US assistant secretary of state.

If China were to succeed in bringing one of these states into its sphere, "it would imperil US military capabilities in a strategically vital geographic command area and open the door to a broader reordering of regional architecture with implications well beyond the Pacific region", it said.

A US missile defence test range in the Marshall Islands is critical to US space and missile-defence capabilities, it added.

Across the Pacific region, China is seeking to enhance its access to ports and exclusive economic zones, frustrate efforts by the US to project military power, increase intelligence gathering and surveillance capabilities, reduce Taiwan's diplomatic partners, and promote the Chinese model of political and economic development, the report said.

"China views the Pacific islands as an area of significant strategic interest," it said.

Washington needs to provide an alternative to Chinese economic assistance to "counter Beijing's efforts to capitalise on regional perceptions of neglect and abandonment".

More resources are needed to monitor China's increasing activity in the FAS, where Chinese research vessels with "military utility" have been spotted without permission.

The FSM recently agreed to develop new US military facilities, and Palau asked the US to build airstrips, ports and bases, which "Washington should consider seriously to the extent that it aligns with defence needs", the report said. REUTERS

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.