Most leaders in the region want closer relationships with other democracies, especially in economic development, education, and health care, so that they have option to China’s CNP (Comprehensive National Power) onslaught.
There has been a lot of discussion about what the Quad should (or shouldn’t) prioritise. It might make sense to also start talking about where it should prioritise. One area might be Oceania, in particular the Micronesian region. I’ll explain.
It has to do with China’s concept of “comprehensive national power” or CNP.
COMPREHENSIVE NATIONAL POWER (CNP)
Adopted by Beijing in the 1990s, the CNP concept is embedded in Chinese think tanks and is key for understanding Beijing’s global strategy. For the Chinese Communist Party, CNP is an actual number. Its researchers obsessively calculate every country’s CNP.
Things that add to a country’s CNP number include its access to resources (their or someone else’s), research and development (including stolen intellectual property), human capital, financial capital, influence over global rules, influence in international organizations, strategic positioning, and much more.
CNP is the concept that connects the dots between the Confucius Institutes, the artificial islands in the South China Sea, the Belt and Road Initiative, and getting American teenagers to install TikTok on their phones.
CHINA IN OCEANIA
Over the past couple of decades or so, China has had a massive CNP push in Oceania. That has included headline items—like getting a country to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China—as well as seemingly little ones such as, a Huawei data centre in Papua New Guinea (PNG), a couple of hundred Samoan athletes training in China, a Chinese police liaison officer in Fiji, a Chinese-run shop located opposite the entrance to a military barrackin Tonga, or legislation that allows online gambling in Palau.
Coordination is facilitated by China’s large embassies across the region, with staffers who speak the local language and have seemingly limitless slush funds.
Also, since 2012, at least six Oceania-specific research centres have been set up in China, including Liaocheng University’s Research Centre on Pacific Island Countries, which has a full-time staff of close to 40 researchers and worked with the National University of Samoa to open a Confucius Institute in that country.
Given this massive effort, the question is why does Beijing think the Pacific Islands are so important for its CNP?
A key reason is geography.
IMPORTANCE OF THE NAVY TO BEIJING’S PLANS
A core part of China’s CNP strategy is developing a world-class military—spearheaded by the Navy—that is capable of challenging, and eventually displacing, America as the world’s preeminent naval power.
Between 2016 and 2020, the Chinese navy added the equivalent of Japan’s entire current surface fleet and it is on track to having nearly twice as many surface ships as the US Navy before the end of the decade.
The problem for China is that to use its navy, it needs access out of its ports and into the Pacific and beyond. But looking out from the east coast of China there are a series of island chains that can be used to block that access.
ISLAND CHAIN DEFENCE CONCEPT
The First Island Chainroughly stretches down Japan, including Okinawa, through Taiwan and the Philippines. The second and third chains include Guam, the Marianas, FSM (Federated States of Micronesia), Midway, and more. This area saw some of the most desperate battles of World War II.
The chains are a problem for Chinese strategists.
This is one reason why China is so serious about capturing Taiwan—they need it to break the First Island Chain.
If Taiwan falls, the First Island Chain is broken, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) gains an unsinkable aircraft carrier and launching point for operations in the Pacific and beyond. If China controls Taiwan, it will expand from there—seizing more of the First Island Chain, up the Ryukyus and down the Batanes. That could eventually allow China to subordinate Japan and the Philippines. Tokyo understands this, which is why it is now openly saying Taiwan’s defence is Japan’s defence.
At the same time, Beijing is working on Taiwan, it is also trying to burrow itself into the Second and Third Island Chains to disrupt American (and Japanese, Australian, Indonesian, Philippines, etc.) planning, and gain the ability to attack the First Island Chain from behind.
Understanding how important “breaking the chains” is for the PLA is fundamental for understanding how the Pacific Islands fit into China’s CNP calculations and grand strategy.
VIEW FROM PACIFIC ISLANDS
Many Pacific Islanders have a better understanding of China and geostrategic issues than some of the top experts in Western think tanks. They have come by this knowledge painfully and over a long time.
Over the last 130 years, parts of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) have been ruled sequentially by Spain, which sold them to Germany (after Spain’s defeat in the Spanish-American War), which lost them to Japan (after its defeat in World War I), before the United States gained control in World War II.
Each change, decided by factors far outside the control of the FSM people, left a deep impression on the country’s inhabitants. The FSM became independent in 1989—finally getting its own say—and is now party to a Compact of Free Association with the United States. It has also signed on to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Regional leaders, like many around the world, have been trying to balance interests without toppling over. However, as China’s hegemonic intensions become clearer, regional leaders—having seen where this path leads before—are becoming more concerned and more vocal.
In a recent speech, Ambassador Amatlain Elizabeth Kabua, Permanent Representative for the Republic of the Marshall Islands to the United Nations, said: “In recent years, there has been increasingly high-level attention to our region, and while we welcome the engagement, we have [the] motivation to distinguish between someone who is interested in building a durable partnership to help us grow as a people and as a nation—which we welcome and encourage—or someone who is interested in our area just for their own expansion.”
Most leaders in the region want closer and deeper relationships with other democracies—especially in economic development, education, and health care—so that they have a viable option to China’s CNP onslaught.
Many in the region see India as a potential partner in a range of areas, though the many laudable Pacific Island initiatives announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi seem to get blunted in implementation.
Many also want more direct engagement with the US. The most often complaint heard about the United States in Oceania is “Where are you?”
So how can democracies work with Pacific Islanders to create a comprehensive multinational defence to China’s comprehensive national power in a way that benefits all?
THE QUAD IN MICRONESIA
The Pacific Islands are divided into three broad political areas, Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia. This is a vast area, and covering it all immediately is likely to dissipate the effort and lead to discouragement.
The area that would make the most sense to work with initially is Micronesia.
Micronesia consists of five independent countries, Kiribati, Nauru, the Marshall Islands, FSM and Palau. The last three have Compacts of Free Association (COFA) with the USthat allow their citizens to live and work in the US, and give the USguaranteed military access as well as the “right of strategic denial,” to other states. The region also includes USterritories Guam and the Northern Marianas.
Reasons for the Quad to prioritise Micronesia include:
* Many of the countries have close ties to the US, indeed Guam is the US.
* India has said it wants to improve relations with the Pacific Islands, and has already included them in Quad initiatives such as vaccines.
*Japan, which has a long history in the area, is ramping up engagement, including a recent JMSDF visit to Palau.
*Australia says the region is one that Canberra considers important.
*Being closest to China, the countries of Micronesia are on the strategic front line.
*Three of the countries (Nauru, Palau and Marshalls) recognise Taiwan, making them major targets of Beijing.
*The region is home to strategically crucial and sensitive infrastructure, including major military installations in Guam and a network of critical undersea cables.
*The USis currently renegotiation the COFAs, so there is increased awareness in Washington and Hawaii.
*The recent fragmentation of the Pacific Island Forum, which saw the leaders of the five Micronesian countries say they will leave the organization, means Micronesian leaders are rethinking their regional structures, leaving an opening for new, innovative and more responsive Micronesian collaboration.
Given all that, it would make sense for the Quad, as a group, and as individual countries, to work with the area to create a Micronesian Zone of Security, Prosperity, and Freedom that would knit the region together, letting its countries and territories reinforce each other.
Quad activities would be designed to improve interoperability while benefiting the people of Micronesia. They could range from human security initiatives like those pioneered during the Quad vaccine development, to helping with infrastructure, to enforcement exercises around illegal fisheries.
One thing that would be particularly of use would be a permanent Quad Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HA/DR) training and logistics centre based in Micronesia.
No matter what the diplomats say, the Quad is about China. And one of the areas under the most persistent Chinese CNP attack is Micronesia. Beijing needs to win there if it has to break out of the “bathtub” of the South and East China Seas created by the Island Chains.
The Quad (and all democracies) has a choice. Help Micronesia fight China’s CNP and become a zone of security, prosperity and freedom, in the process showing democracy really is the better system.
Or watch as countries of the region are pulled into China’s expanding orbit and China’s frontline moves even closer to the shores of the Quad.
There is no third choice.
Cleo Paskal is Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and The Sunday Guardian Special Correspondent.