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International relations

US and China leave Biden 'high stakes' inheritance in South Pacific

Washington lined up new ships as Beijing closed in on port before Election Day

A port in the Samoan capital of Apia: China is poised to help the island country redevelop another, well-located but disused port.   © Reuters

APIA, Samoa -- The week before Americans voted President Donald Trump out of the White House, a confluence of events thousands of kilometers away was shaping his successor's foreign policy challenges.

The South Pacific has seen an overheating soft power race in the past five years, with aid receipts among island states rising 25% in 2018 alone to reach $2.89 billion, a study released last month by Australia's Lowy Institute think tank showed. But as the election neared, the U.S. made a modest but clear hard power play aimed at China -- and met an instant rejoinder.

President Trump's national security adviser Robert O'Brien announced plans for a Pacific deployment of three new 154-foot fast response cutter boats to counter "increasing Chinese aggression."

O'Brien said the boats would not be used to protect American Samoa and Guam, the territories where they would be deployed. Instead, they would counter the "malign and predatory" influence of China in South Pacific waters, and help end the threat to the "rules-based order that's kept the peace since World War II."

O'Brien referred to "the 'blue militia' engaging in strip fishing and depleting resources in the western Pacific" and said "the [People's Liberation Army] Navy is patrolling the area far more."

As part of the Coast Guard, the boats' offensive capability is limited. But that branch of the armed forces has taken to referring to itself as part of a collective "Naval Service" alongside the Marines and Navy. And its patrol routes make confrontation with commercial or governmental Chinese interests highly likely.

Three days after O'Brien's statement and roughly a week before the U.S. Election Day, China further raised the temperature.

The governments of China and Samoa confirmed publicly that the former was studying a request to rebuild a disused port on the northwest tip of the largest Samoan island.

The breakwater protecting the bay on which the port sits is guarded by an old American airstrip from World War II -- a symbolic reminder, perhaps, of the location's strategic significance. The port's ideal location is undermined by its thick coral bed that withstood attempts to bomb it out of existence in the 1960s.

Samoa says it simply wants funding (and almost certainly the engineering expertise) to turn Asau into a deepwater port for commercial use.

Masoe Serota Tufuga, the high chief of the village that owns the port land -- and who has the ultimate say on its development -- told Nikkei Asia that the government said funding had been secured. He supports the project, but said future military use had not been discussed and would need to be a collective village decision.

La'auli Leuatea Schmidt, a former speaker of the country's parliament and minister of agriculture, fisheries and scientific research, is more skeptical.

"Nothing is for free nowadays," said the veteran politician, who recently split from Samoa's ruling party to form a new opposition party. La'auli said there is no plan to grow industry around the infrastructure and that it is far from the country's most pressing need.

"We must be very careful," he said. "We're all looking for development projects but we must make sure there are no strings hiding behind it."

Hugh White, a professor emeritus of strategic studies at the Australian National University, believes the U.S. and Chinese moves were a sign of a simmering soft power battle reaching a new level.

"The almost simultaneous announcements from China and the U.S. may well be a coincidence, but the fact that they both [took] such steps at the same time does show how live the competition between them is," he said.

The mere idea of the Asau redevelopment -- which has been talked about coquettishly but never concretely for more than a year -- gnaws at some foreign policy hawks.

"If you look at the map, it's part of a salient push into the central Pacific, right into the heart of American defenses and territory that America has always thought of as its own," said Grant Newsham, a senior analyst at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies.

Newsham argues dual-use infrastructure such as ports form part of a long-term play to expand China's presence. The concern is that such projects may begin with a charitable or commercial venture but end with accommodation of Chinese military vessels.

China critics refer to "debt-trap diplomacy" to describe the process whereby Beijing offers to build a country an asset but overtakes ownership if it falls behind on repayments. The classic case is Sri Lanka's Hambantota Port, a project built by China that soon fell into disuse and Chinese hands.

Samoa's economic position is precarious. Its central bank is publicly forecasting an average 10% decline in GDP for the current financial year and has privately warned the country's commercial banks that the economy is on track to slide into a depression. And Samoa is China's second largest debtor in the Pacific behind only Tonga.

Attempts to secure a comment from the Chinese government on the issue were unsuccessful. But Zha Daojiong, a professor of International Studies at Peking University, said "it would not do any party justice" to repeat the Sri Lanka episode. He thinks too many are overplaying the importance of Asau.

"I don't see why a military [installation] in the Pacific is in China's interest, short or long term," he said.

Whatever one's view of the port's significance, the latest American and Chinese moves only provide more fodder for debate over how the next U.S. president will and should act to defend American interests.

The current U.S. Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy is pursuing a plan to have two military task forces permanently stationed in the Indo-Pacific; the first by the end of fiscal 2021.

The tiny former U.S. colony of Palau openly asked to host bases, ports or airstrips of any kind in September, following a visit by then-Pentagon chief Mark Esper. Palau emphasized the economic benefits for its population of 20,000.

Esper's trip underscored the view of many thinkers in Washington: that the Trump administration has been spending an unprecedented amount of its diplomatic capital in the Pacific.

"The level of U.S. government attention to the strategic importance of the Pacific Islands during the Trump administration is more than I have ever seen," said Robert Sutton, a professor of practice of international affairs at George Washington University.

Trump's ouster will almost certainly change the tenor of relations with Beijing. The question in the Asia-Pacific is whether this is something to cheer.

Biden's critics doubt he has the mettle to stick to a policy reminiscent of Cold War-era containment.

As a longtime member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and then as vice president, Biden was often an emissary to China who sought to forge ties on trade and other matters. Though he called Chinese President Xi Jinping a "thug" on the 2020 campaign trail and insisted the U.S. needs to "get tough on China," it has not been easy to shake the perception that he is more interested in building alliances.

Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in 2013.   © Reuters

In April, one anonymous Japanese foreign ministry official, writing in The American Interest magazine, expressed this forcefully.

"Do we want, if possible, to go back to the world before Trump?" the official asked. "For many decision-makers in Tokyo, the answer is probably no, because having a poorly implemented but fundamentally correct strategy [under Trump] is better than having a well-implemented but ambiguous strategy."

Graham Allison, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of government who was Bill Clinton's assistant defense secretary and special adviser on defense to Ronald Reagan, says it is wrong to conflate alliance-building with weakness.

He said that while Biden "will be more orderly, business-like and calculating," he will "not be softer than Trump on China. Indeed, his advisers have been saying Biden will be tougher but smarter."

With years of build-up reaching a crescendo in what has arguably replaced the Middle East as the preeminent geostrategic theater, one thing is for sure: Even the slightest move will not go unnoticed.

"The stakes are very high," professor White said. "Much higher than anything intrinsic to these small island nations themselves."

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