As its relationship with China worsens, the U.S. is making deals with smaller Pacific nations
The agreements with smaller countries are designed to expand American influence in the region, solidify existing relationships, and give the U.S. military more footholds.
The diplomacy war with China has heated up so much that the United States is suddenly cutting deals all over the Pacific to expand its influence, give the military more footholds, and keep existing allies in the fold.
The deal getting the most attention recently came in February, when Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin traveled to Manila to announce an agreement with the Philippines giving the United States access to four military bases there.
In a news conference, Austin cited China’s aggression in claiming control over parts of the West Philippine Sea.
Getting less attention, though, has been a flurry of other deal-making with tiny nations scattered across the Pacific.
Three preliminary agreements renew – and expand – long-term deals with the governments of Palau, the Marshall Islands, and Micronesia.
In addition, the State Department opened a new U.S. embassy in the Solomon Islands. It says it’s discussing two more embassies in Tonga and Kiribati and negotiating a security agreement with yet another island nation, Papua New Guinea.
“We are definitely in the business of trying to maintain the edge that we have influence-wise in the Pacific Islands vis-a-vis China,” said Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst with Rand Corporation.
Many of these smaller nations are part of what’s sometimes referred to in geopolitical circles as “the second island chain.” It's a vaguely-defined group that’s farther from the Asian mainland – and Chinese missile launchers – than Taiwan and Japan, but close enough to help the U.S. project power into the region.
This “second chain” isn’t really a chain. It's more of a widely-spread patchwork that includes the U.S. territories of the Northern Marianas and Guam. Not coincidentally, the Marine Corps in January activated a base Guam - the Corps' first new base in 70 years.
Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, who represents the Northern Marianas Islands in the U.S. Congress, said the recent deal-making in the region is crucial, because the United States needs to have the military groundwork in place if things heat up even more with China.
“We have to be friends with these island nations for that eventuality,” he said.
He said along the same lines, the United States needs to boost its infrastructure in the two territories as a deterrent to China.
“Some people in think tanks already are exhibiting with exhibitions of whose first gonna get destroyed and then who’s the second wave," he said. "We need to strengthen it before we get there."
It’s unclear how much this escalation in diplomacy will cost.
A State Department spokesperson said the United States now sends Palau, the Marshall Islands, and Micronesia together more than $300 million a year under unique deals with them, which are called Compacts of Free Association (COFA).
She declined to say how much it’s offering in negotiations to renew the 20-year compacts, but leaders of two of the countries have said the terms of the preliminary agreements would boost the payments by 75 percent or more.
The three COFA nations already are so closely tied to the US their citizens can live and work here and take advantage of benefits such as Medicaid and the U.S. Postal Service.
“In return, what we get as the United States is its near exclusive military access to the freely associated states,” said Grossman. "That means we can set up basing on their territories, we can fly over their territories …. There are very few limitations.”
The widely spread islands also would allow the U.S to establish redundancy in the region - multiple ways to disperse its forces. The U.S. Marine Corps has been redesigning and equipping some units for fighting in small, widely-dispersed islands.
Grossman says for their part, the island nations have little interest in the maneuvering between the U.S. and China. Instead, they’re looking to bolster their economies damaged by the pandemic. They also plan to use funds from the agreements to deal with climate change, which they regard as a much larger threat than China.
“They've come out kind of off to the side saying, ‘We get it…We know that this is about competition against China, but we also need to make sure that our own national interests are preserved,’” Grossman said.
This recent push to secure and expand U.S. influence in the region has been bipartisan. The Trump Administration pursued deals, then discussions accelerated under President Joe Biden, who hosted the first U.S.-Pacific Island summit last fall.
The importance of U.S. dealmaking in the Pacific was underlined last spring when one Pacific island nation, Solomon Islands, inked its own security agreement — with China.
“We want to make sure that we don't see Chinese bases cropping up throughout the region and Solomons,” Grossman said. “Solomons shook us to our core when it comes to our strategy in the Pacific.”
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.