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US extends losing streak to China in the Pacific – Asia Times

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I started life as a fan of a hapless baseball team called the Washington Senators, so I recognize losing when I see it. There’s plenty of losing going on in the Pacific as the Chinese seek to undercut the American and Australian positions.

Lose the Pacific and it almost doesn’t matter what weapons you give to Taiwan or how you reinforce the so-called First Island Chain running from Japan via Taiwan and the Philippines to Borneo. The Chinese are running rings around the US, Australia, and everyone else in the Pacific.  

In the latest setback, Papua New Guinea reportedly is talking to China about an agreement that will allow for People’s Republic of China (PRC) police to provide training and surveillance equipment to the PNG police force.

The Americans and the Australians might have thought we were best friends forever with PNG. But this shouldn’t be a surprise – even after the Americans signed a comprehensive security deal with PNG last summer and the Australians signed a more recent agreement with PNG regarding policing and security. Supposedly Australia would be PNG’s ‘partner of choice’ when it needed help.

When the Americans signed the deal it was a good thing by and large and offered benefits to both countries – especially on the security front between each nation’s military. But one wondered whether the Americans anticipated the Chinese political warfare counter-attack that one knew was coming.

As news of the deal came out, citizen groups started to challenge it. No surprise. The Chinese are always on the ground in PNG and in the Pacific – always influencing and pushing – and at all levels and parts of society.  

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It’s all greased with money – much if not most of it under the table, of course – but a lot of the financial influence derives from the Chinese commercial presence in all these Pacific nations, right down to the corner shop level. The American and Australian commercial presences? There is some, but it doesn’t match up so well against the Chinese.

In fact, the president or head of a Chinese logging or fishing outfit in Papua New Guinea (or any other Pacific nation) probably has more real influence on the ground than the four-star Admiral commanding the US Indo-Pacific Command.

For now, China won’t mind if the Australians and the Americans are still around in PNG or elsewhere in the region. It gives them a chance to watch and learn their behaviors. And they don’t mind if they have signed agreements. 

An agreement is just a piece of paper (as PRC officials will tell you) and can be renounced or ignored anytime. The PRC just needs its foot in the door and it will go from there for as long as it takes.  

Unfortunately, the Americans (and the Australians) really don’t understand (or even care about) political warfare, which is a mystery – if not an expletive – in Washington and Canberra. China is glad to have it that way.

Political warfare refers to a nation using every element of national power short of outright armed conflict to get its way. This includes economic, financial, commercial, proxy (getting locals to push for your interests), propaganda, psychological, legal and cyber warfare, among others.  

That’s what the Chinese are doing.  You’ll even notice that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) isn’t very active in the region and that China hasn’t fired a shot – yet it is slowly laying the groundwork for hard power capabilities.

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The free nations do very little, if anything, to block Chinese pol-war efforts.  And providing attractive alternatives to what the Chinese are doing or offering seems too hard. We are Olympic champions at admiring the problems but we don’t actually do very much to assert ourselves. And we rarely keep score to see how we’re doing.

Meanwhile, we’re watching this play out throughout the entire Pacific – even in the US territories of the Commonwealth of Northern Marianas and Guam. And also in the strategically indispensable Freely Associated States – Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Palau – with which the United States has formal agreements allowing American defense rights as part of a complex package that also includes financial and other support.

One also notes the role of corruption in the Chinese political warfare effort. This is effective because it seldom is exposed and is even more rarely punished.  American law enforcement and intelligence services are pretty lazy on this front and have their priorities elsewhere.  

There was, however, a partial success involving the Marshall Islands a couple years ago when two Chinese who had obtained Marshallese citizenship came within a vote of bribing the Marshalls legislature into setting up a free trade zone – almost a country within a country – near the US missile base at Kwajalein. They pled guilty to bribery in a New York court and were sentenced to prison.

Then old habits kicked in and, after one of the criminals finished her prison sentence in the US, she was deported – back to the Marshall Islands, where she is now walking free. 

The Americans may be lazy or busy elsewhere, but I can’t believe the Australians don’t know a lot about what goes on in the Southwest Pacific.

For example, it’s widely believed that Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare or his close associates moved a lot of money through Australia over the years and bought up Australian real estate, as well.  

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Something similar might be said of PNG and the Australians. But nobody ever goes after this grease that is so important for PRC political warfare. The excuses? We don’t want to get So-and-so mad. We can handle him and control him. If we raise the issue it will harm our relationships – and our relationships with other corrupt officials in the region too.  So we’ll do nothing.    

This sounds like grist for a “Yes Minister” comedy show. It also brings to mind the UK and US response to Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. They knew what he was doing, but they did nothing – until he’d been in power for over 20 years. By then, it was too late.

More losing is on the way

It appears there’s more losing to come as some in Tuvalu – another tiny but important Pacific island nation – consider shifting relations to China and away from Taiwan. 

It hasn’t done so yet, but I think we know what’s coming. Just as it was obvious what was coming with Nauru a few weeks back when it severed ties with Taiwan and formally recognized the PRC – and opened the country up to more Chinese inroads.  

One had to at least smirk a couple months ago when Australia got that deal with Tuvalu. Basically, Tuvalu promised not to have a relationship (security or otherwise) with other countries without Australia’s approval. In exchange, the Tuvaluans got the right to have 280 people or fewer emigrate to Australia every year.

The Australians were practically crowing – but more like a rooster atop the barnyard dung heap. One had a feeling it wouldn’t take the Chinese long to undercut the deal – and Tuvalu’s new government is talking about doing so.

Not that Beijing would have had much to do, the lopsided deal was so unpopular locally, it likely played a role in the fact that the Tuvaluan prime minister who signed the deal didn’t even get reelected.

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Canberra (and Washington) really ought to know that having a “deal” doesn’t mean much.  A comprehensive political warfare effort run by people who know what they are doing would be better.

It’s not like we haven’t had our chances to maintain or improve our positions. At some point, you have to say that some of the people running Pacific affairs (in Australia and the USA) just aren’t very good.

Results are what matters and they don’t get them. The front-line people are a mixed bag but are sometimes very good. Regardless, they get little support from the head office in Washington – or even the White House and Congress. I won’t speak for the Australians. 

An Australian friend commented that it seems like Australia is taking one step forward and two steps backward trying to counter Chinese influence in the region.

Since he mentioned it … It does seem that way. It was unwise for Washington to outsource things in the Southwest and South Pacific to Australia for 30 years. We could hardly have done worse.  

Even stranger, the Australians seem to resent the renewed US presence in their patch.  Go figure.  

Regardless, consider the Solomon Islands. China has its claws in the place and, via its currently favored proxy, Prime Minister Sogavare, it engineered a shift from Taiwan to the PRC in 2019.

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Australian missteps even helped Sogavare stay in power following riots in 2021 – giving Sogavare an opening to cut a deal with Beijing that welcomed in PRC police (as PNG is now considering doing) and potentially allows Chinese military forces into the country.

Australia did nothing much when the unpopular Sogavare postponed elections scheduled for 2023 – nominally so that the nation could host the Pacific Island Games in November 2023. China funded the games and facilities to the tune of over $100 million. (The elections at last have been scheduled, for April 2024).

Not long before the games opened, the Australian ambassador in Honiara presided over the opening of an Australian-funded water park that would be used for certain game events.

That’s nice, I suppose. But Australia might better have made the nearby National Referral Hospital its pet project for the last few decades and spent what was necessary to turn it into a decent hospital and keep it running right.  

That would have been far better than a water park.  And would have done more for the Solomons – and for Australian interests as well. This could have been done at any time over the last few decades. It wasn’t. Forget China; Cuba alone has educated at least a dozen Solomon Islanders to become medical doctors. Australia hasn’t produced a single one.

At times it seems that at least some Australians and officials responsible for the region are like the old South Africans in how they regard and deal with the locals.  They don’t seem to have a sense of how they are regarded either – thinking they are liked or even loved.

Maybe sometimes. But sometimes you’d be surprised what the locals say when you’re not around. If Canberra and Washington keep doing what they’re doing in the Pacific, then they will lose out.

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And given how the Biden administration and Congress won’t spring for the pittance required for the deals with Palau, Micronesia, and Marshall Islands, it seems like Washington, in fact, wants to lose. 

They’re playing like the baseball Senators. I don’t know what is the Australian equivalent of the Senators. But you get the point.

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and former US diplomat. He is the author of the book When China Attacks: A Warning To America.

Source: Asia Times

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