While the U.S. has been focused on preparing for the kinetic warfare battlefield, China has been registering big wins on the political warfare battlefield. You can see it all over the Pacific Islands.
Exactly 79 years ago, on 9 July 1944, the American military secured the island of Saipan—a key component of Imperial Japan’s defence plan. Tens of thousands died in the battle, and the island was devastated.
Then it was rebuilt for war—with a massive effort to put in runways. Saipan and the neighboring island of Tinian, were soon among the busiest airports in the world, as waves of B-29s took off to bomb Japan—which was now in range—and markedly fewer B-29s returned.
On the top of Mount Tapochau, the highest point on the island, you can still see the scars seared in by the war. And from Mount Topachau, you can see the mismatched battlefield of the current cold war.
Out on the horizon, anchored off Saipan, are three U.S. Navy prepositioning ships, fully stocked and ready to respond to war and disaster. The kids of Saipan know that if they suddenly disappear from the horizon, something bad has probably happened. Yes, they respond to natural disasters, but they are also there, waiting, for “kinetic” conflict—a shooting war.
Meanwhile, also from Mount Tapochau, you can see the downtown hub of Garapan. The biggest building in downtown, by far, is the not quite finished massive Imperial Palace casino, backed by Chinese investors. Currently closed and being liquidated, the casino has wreaked havoc on the politics and economy of Saipan. And it’s still not over.
LOOKING AT THE WRONG BATTLEFIELD
While the U.S. has been focused on preparing for the kinetic warfare battlefield, China has been registering big wins, largely unopposed (except perhaps occasionally by its own corruption and ineptitude), on the political warfare battlefield.
You can see it all over the Pacific Islands—not coincidentally the zone of some of the most vicious fighting of World War II. Geography means that any Pacific Asian country that wants to project its power, must first contain or control this area.
The Chinese Communist Party knows this history. It is targeting the same deep ports, strategic airfields, and resources the Japanese did, but they are doing it through political warfare, while the US looks for kinetic signals.
For example, in May, the United States made what seemed to be big gain on the kinetic front, when a defence deal was agreed with Papua New Guinea (PNG). Less noticed was that, in June, PNG Prime Minister James Marape presented a reciprocal visa waiver agreement with China to Parliament, saying: “This reciprocal visa waiver agreement is a significant step towards enhancing business and tourism potential between China and Papua New Guinea.”
Not long after that, two officials from the USINDOPACOM’s Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance did not obtain visas to participate in a PNG-approved disaster response exercise. This has echoes of the US Coast Guard ships on illegal fisheries patrols not being able to obtain entry to Solomon Islands or Vanuatu ports.
All are hits to the US on the political warfare front—blocking them out of working with allies, building trust and bolstering relationships. It’s below the kinetic threshold so it barely registers in Washington, but it’s a win for China (and a loss for the people of those countries who want both more humanitarian assistance and help with illegal fisheries).
It’s almost as if the US is color blind and can’t see the countries being painted red—it at best talks of things getting a bit more grey (zone).
CENTRALITY OF THE CENTRAL PACIFIC
An area where the stakes for the US (and those who believe in a free and open Indo-Pacific) of getting it wrong are especially high is the Central Pacific. Included in the Central Pacific are two parts of the United States—Guam and the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), of which Saipan is a part.
Also included are three island nations, stretching from west to east—Republic of Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, and Republic of Marshall Islands—that occupy an area about as large as the continental United States. This is strategic geography by any standard.
Starting nearly 40 years ago, each of those three independent nations entered into a “Compact of Free Association” (COFA) with the US. These countries are known collectively as the Freely Associated States (FAS).
These complex agreements, currently being renegotiated, provide the three countries with financial and other assistance—to include the right of their citizens to live and work in the United States. Washington also undertook responsibility for the nations’ defense, to include the right to prevent any foreign military presence in each of the COFA states.
The deep relationship between the US and the FAS is considered such a given, unimpeded access has been an unspoken assumption in US defense plans for decades.
However, over the last 30 years (some would say longer) the People’s Republic of China has insinuated itself into the commercial and political systems of each FAS nation, to the point American control is no longer the “sure thing” it was once thought. Indeed, one of the three, Marshall Islands, has yet to complete its renewal of the financial and services portion of its COFA—something that expires on 30 September 2023.
Ultimately, the United States took the FAS for granted—apparently assuming that since it “had a contract” there was nothing to worry about. Washington also assumed that all would be well since it was providing considerable aid to the FAS—direct financial payments as well as support for education, health care, infrastructure development, and even postal services and weather forecasting services, as well as offering the right of FAS citizens to reside in the United States and providing “military protection” for the island nations.
The PRC took advantage of American complacency and patiently and diligently went about establishing and expanding its influence in the FAS. The Chinese applied a recognizable “sequence”—starting with a commercial presence that included Chinese nationals on the ground and operating businesses—and down to the corner shop level.
Chinese economic inroads also included Chinese involvement, and indeed, outright control of key industries—including local fishing industries—that are the main economic resources for the FAS nations. There is also substantial PRC-linked criminal activity.
This commercial/criminal presence created political influence—directly with local officials and other citizens who saw the Chinese presence as a valuable thing in an economy with limited prospects. It was also personally valuable for many local officials and politicians. In Palau, the Chinese successfully “weaponized” the tourism industry to influence local officials and others. And this approach has also been used in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) via the offer of massive investments by Chinese resort companies.
All in all, the Chinese were (and are) seen by many in the FAS as an economic lifeline. And while the local intention may be to have Chinese money in addition to American support via the COFAs, the effect—and the PRC’s intentions—are to eventually displace the United States in the Central Pacific. Then forget any economic largess from anyone—China will block economic access by others and revert to its usual purely parasitic economic engagement while setting up the infrastructure it wants to project political and kinetic power.
A necessary step towards that goal to get the two FAS that recognize Taiwan, Palau and Marshall Islands, to derecognize Taipei so that China can set up the forward operating base of political warfare, a Chinese Embassy.
The US has been too slow to recognize what has been happening—even though Chinese influence efforts have been reported—even via US diplomatic channels. And, of course, there is a whacking great, gilded casino in the heart of Saipan.
It failed, but that was because the operators (who are still floating around Saipan) cut corners. It never should have been started. The Americans had (and still have) no political warfare scheme of their own—so the Chinese have effectively operated unchallenged.
While bribery and under the table payments are part and parcel of Chinese activities in each FAS nation, there is next to no downside risk to taking Chinese money owing to scant prospects of such activities being revealed or, if revealed, punished.
The US also has been unsuccessful in drawing major commercial interests into the region in any meaningful way. This could be owing to a lack of business know-how and imagination in US diplomatic and official circles. It is exacerbated by a failure to work together with partners—such as the Japanese, Taiwanese, South Koreans, and Indians on commercial and other broader approaches to bolstering the US and other free-nations’ presence and interests in the region.
WHAT TO DO
The majority of citizens in the region want nothing to do with the PRC. But they want, indeed they need, the Americans and other like-mindeds to “step up” and demonstrate their reputed commitment to the region. In many ways, this is what India has been trying to do in similar circumstances in the Indian Ocean, and tentatively, since Prime Minister Modi’s visit to PNG in May, in the Pacific.
While not ignoring kinetic preparations, including in places like the Himalayas and Taiwan, it would help to start mutual reinforcements on the political warfare battlefield, realize what is at stake and quickly develop and implement a proper campaign plan to bolster presence and position and to take on Chinese influence efforts—to include the PRC’s highly effective use of under the table financial and other corrupt methods of establishing Beijing’s influence. This needs to be exposed—and intelligence and law enforcement resources need to be deployed at proper scale.
Locals fighting to liberate their countries, and economies, are clear. In a February 2023 Senate hearing, CNMI Governor Arnold I. Palacios said: “The interests of the Marianas in getting our government’s financial house in order, shoring up our economy, strengthening our infrastructure, and stabilizing our population are inextricably linked with the interests of our nation and our allies in a secure and peaceful Indo-Pacific.”
What help has he asked for? Tanks, ammunition, missiles? He wants FBI agents, forensic audits, tax investigators, lawyers and a range of other fighters that can really make a difference on the political warfare battlefield, especially when the invading force is using criminality as its weapon of choice.
Governor Palacios gets it. Saipan is back on the frontline. The battle looks different this time but, left undefended, the outcome might be just as dire. Seventy-nine years ago, a massive effort was made to rebuild Saipan (and the region) for kinetic war. Rebuild it (and the region) now for a viable and defensible peace, and we have a chance to avoid that sort of war, and keep those prepositioning ships reassuringly in sight of the children of Saipan.