China’s Continuing Conundrum: The US in the Maldives and Palau

16 September 2020 Lindsay Hughes, Senior Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

Background

China’s aggressive and confrontational international policies have seen many countries in the international community come together to counter what they perceive to be gross expansionism in terms of territory, trade and commerce, military capacity and political influence. The push-back against Chinese expansionism has caused Beijing a good deal of concern, a few facets of which were highlighted in a recent FDI paper. That push-back, to be clear, may be directly attributed to the strategic miscalculation that General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, made in believing that China was sufficiently powerful, economically and militarily, to replace the US at the apex of the international system.

Mr Xi probably had good reason for his confidence. The Obama Administration in Washington had all but ceded political and commercial leadership to Beijing. It was left to a bombastic populist, Donald Trump, to call a halt to China’s predatory commercial practices, to attempt to right a hopelessly-skewed trade imbalance with China that saw up to US$600 billion (approx. $819 billion) flow to China annually, along with factory jobs and stolen commercially-valuable intellectual property, and to chide China for its human rights failings.

One outcome of the Trump Administration’s policies vis-à-vis China has been an all-but-declared trade war with talk of an economic decoupling between the two countries. That has led, in turn, to a revamping of their militaries and a renewed effort to establish relationships with strategically-located countries.

Comment

A recent report noted that China is extending its influence in the Pacific Ocean, specifically in Kiribati. The ruling Tobwaan Kiribati Party signed an agreement with Beijing in January, making it part of the CCP’s Belt-Road Initiative. China will build two “transhipment hubs” in Kiribati. As the report notes:

One hub is planned at the capital of Tarawa Atoll in the west, which was the site of the first major amphibious landing by US forces in the push against Japan during World War II. The second is planned at the strategically located Kiritimati (“Christmas”) Atoll in the east, directly south of Hawaii and the major US bases there.

No matter that the stated objective of the two hubs is commercial, there remains the nagging worry that those hubs could serve a dual purpose, that they could be used by China’s military to extend its reach into the Pacific Ocean. One cause for that concern is Mr Xi’s call to the PLA in May this year to prepare for war (also here, here and here).

It is perhaps that talk of war and the ongoing trade war between the US and China, together with Beijing’s reach into its neighbourhood, that has seen the tiny nation of Palau invite the US to build ports and bases on its territory. The invitation was given to US Defence Secretary Mark Esper during his five-hour stop in the Republic of Palau.

The offer was too good for the chief of the US Pacific Air Forces to ignore. General Kenneth Wilsbach noted that he was ‘absolutely looking forward’ to an expanded US military presence in Palau, adding, ‘It’s a pretty good location to operate out of, although the airfields wouldn’t accommodate much more at this point besides C-130-type aircraft’, and that, although it would take ‘quite a bit more work’ to expand or create a runway and facilities to accommodate fighters, tankers or heavy-lift aircraft, ‘that is something that we’re absolutely looking toward to. And, frankly, we so appreciate the government of Palau asking us to come in.’

General Wilsbach had reason to be delighted with the offer. While China has militarised the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea, making it very risky for US naval ships to operate within it if conflict were to break out between the two countries, Palau, which forms part of the second island chain, is not geographically distant from that body of water. A military base in Palau would complement the one at Guam and add further substance to the ‘power projection superhighway running through the heart of the North Pacific into Asia [that] effectively connects US military forces in Hawaii to those in theatre, particularly to forward operating positions on the US territory of Guam’.

The news only gets worse for China. A press release from the US Department of Defence on 11 September stated that:

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia Reed Werner and Maldivian Minister of Defense Mariya Didi signed the “Framework for U.S. Department of Defense-Maldives Ministry of Defence Defense and Security Relationship” in Philadelphia on September 10.

The Framework sets forth both countries’ intent to deepen engagement and cooperation in support of maintaining peace and security in the Indian Ocean, and marks an important step forward in the defense partnership.

DASD Werner and Minister Didi also discussed U.S. support for the Maldives’ response to COVID-19 and areas for future cooperation, and agreed to work toward scheduling the first Defense and Security Dialogue. Both sides reiterated their commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific that promotes the security and prosperity of all nations in the region.

The use of the term “free and open Indo-Pacific” is striking, that being the legality under which the US Navy conducts its “Freedom of Navigation” operations in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea, much to Beijing’s annoyance. While China does not claim any part of the Indian Ocean, the greater part of its energy imports from the Middle East and Africa are shipped across it, as do its exports to those regions and Europe. While it is correct that India would face considerable difficulty in interdicting, say, Chinese ship-borne energy imports in the Indian Ocean during a conflict, the US Navy would not encounter as much difficulty under similar circumstances. The US, furthermore, need not worry about its naval actions prompting Chinese land forces to attempt to invade its heartland.

China’s concerns are certainly mounting, adding to the pressure that General Secretary Xi faces and, thereby, likely forcing him to increasingly consider a military solution to his problems.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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