The South China Sea is rich with natural resources, including oil, natural gas, and fisheries—all China needs to sustain and keep up with its vast and growing population. Moreover, about 30 percent of the global shipping trade passes through here, making it one of the most strategically important trade routes China aims to dominate in the next few decades. With that being said, you can already guess why the second most powerful country in the world is almost so obsessed with asserting its claim on that territory. And it doesn’t stop there. It also has been eyeing the Pacific Island nations in recent years and went as far as investing in diplomatic, security, cultural, and economic ties to make progress in its ultimate geopolitical ambitions.

Aside from lending assistance and loans, China has made significant progress in its global infrastructure development strategy, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, the trying times presented an opportunity for the country to build and even restore relationships through donating vaccines and financing economic recovery efforts.

While Beijing didn’t explicitly announce its strategic development in the Pacific Islands region, its increased engagement in the area sends a clear message of influence expansion.

A Cause for Concern, Not Alarm

“As Beijing seeks to expand its influence among Pacific nations, strengthening the US-FAS relationship will be essential to securing US interests in the region,” the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) reported Tuesday. Their co-authors include former senior military officials. This includes maintaining “a vital military buffer” in the region before Beijing effectively takes over the “strategically vital geographic” that consequently counters US interests.

“China’s growing influence in the Pacific Islands poses a challenge to US interests, one that should be viewed with concern but not alarm,” it stated.

Because of its long-standing historical ties with local partners and special relationships with three sovereign countries in the northern Pacific, the US has long held a strategically advantageous position in the region.

Maintaining Strong Ties with Pacific Islands

The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the Republic of Palau, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI)—collectively known as the Freely Associated States (FAS)—entered a Compact in the late 1980s with the US, promising to provide security and defense in exchange of freely accessing the surrounding waters of these sovereign states. Throughout the next decade, these agreements didn’t only involve transactional relationships but also weaved both societal and cultural ties that bolstered “economic, education, and interpersonal linkages,” which eventually became the heart of the Compact. However, the agreement is set to expire in 2023 and 2024, and if not renegotiated, the report warned that FAS could look to China for funding and support.

“The vast FAS territorial seas, which span much of the northern Pacific, are an important strategic buffer between US defense assets in Guam and Hawaii and East Asian littoral waters. The US right of strategic denial in the FAS territorial seas knits together US forward presence in the region and functions as a beachhead for US engagement with other Pacific nations,” it explained.

The US military’s missile defense test range is located in the Marshal Islands, and its loss could potentially cripple the country’s space and missile-defense capabilities. Not to mention that two of the three FAS “maintain diplomatic ties with Taipei,” and you all know how Beijing is currently harassing Taiwan.

In summary, by deepening its ties with the Pacific Island nations, Beijing seeks to:

  • Enhance its strategic access to ports and Exclusive Economic Zones;
  • Constrain Taiwan’s international space and reduce its formal diplomatic partners (including the US);
  • Promote the Chinese model of political and economic development;
  • Enhancing access to the export market and expanding trade relations;
  • Advancing the Belt and Road Initiative;
  • Frustrate efforts by the US and allies to project military power in the Western Pacific; and
  • Increase intelligence gathering and surveillance capabilities

While China’s progress thus far is not alarming, it does raise concerns that Washington must address proactively before the former can “capitalize on regional perceptions of neglect and abandonment,” according to the report, adding that “Washington should consider seriously to the extent that it aligns with defense needs” of FAS and other local allies in the Pacific.

You can read the full report here.

Current US Fleet Deployed in Asia-Pacific

USN Fleet Status
As of September 19, 2022. (Screenshot from USNI News)

According to the Fleet and Marine Tracker by USNI News, three US warships were in the Asia-Pacific region as of Monday, September 19, including USS America (LHA-6), USS Tripoli (LHA-7), and USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76).

USNI News Fleet Tracker
Several ships are underway and deployed by the fleet in the Asia-Pacific region. (Screenshot from USNI News)

Carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) departed from its homeport in Yokosuka, Japan, on September 12 after its annual maintenance. It is now en route offshore of South Korea, passing through the Philippines Sea. AP News reported that it is expected to make a port call in Busan this week following the increasing tensions with North Korea. Meanwhile, the amphibious assault ships must pass through the Philippine Sea to resume their Indo-Pacific deployment.