by Bill Wilson
Twenty-seven years before a massive Japanese carrier task force set sail from Hitokappu Bay in Iturup to attack the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor, a single Japanese ship steamed southeast into Chuuk (then called “Truk”), a tiny island with a deep lagoon in Micronesia.
In less than three decades the Japanese developed a network of advanced bases and exclusive maritime control stretching thousands of miles across the Western and Central Pacific. They did it under the guise of economic development, initially with the blessing of the international community through a League of Nations “South Seas Mandate.”
Control of Micronesia was key to swift Japanese victories on Guam, the Philippines, Wake Island, Kiribati, New Guinea, and Nauru. During the war, a significant part of the Japanese fleet was based in Truk Lagoon starting in mid-1942. Four years and one hundred thousand American lives later, the U.S. declared no nation would ever again enjoy such a strategic foothold in the Pacific.
Brigadier General Richard Simcock recently in testimony described Micronesia, Palau, and the Marshall Islands as “part of an important security zone under exclusive U.S. control that spans the entire width of the Pacific when we include Hawaii and the U.S. territories, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.”
After the war, the United States poured billions into Micronesia as it passed from U.S. Naval control to a United Nations’ “Strategic Trusteeship” administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Today it is an ostensibly sovereign nation in a Compact of “Free Association” with the U.S. Nonetheless, Micronesia’s state and federal budgets continue to suffer scrutiny and overrides from office-bound Department of the Interior officials based in Hawaii. They control over $130 million annually in direct U.S. assistance.
It isn’t working. In fact, generations of poorly managed U.S. aid have transformed Micronesia into a welfare state where political life revolves around asking for handouts — the larger the better — making Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s declaration of “America’s Pacific century” a joke.
It is because — not despite — that massive and misguided nature of U.S. assistance to Micronesia that China has initiated a startling series of economic and infrastructure projects and proposals across the islands of Micronesia.
These plans, including negotiation of exclusive fishing rights — over 1 million square miles of the best fishing grounds in world — the creation of ports and dry docks, and public sector building projects offer the Chinese unprecedented influence in a region once termed “the American Pacific.” Completion would place Sino maritime influence and presence within 500 miles of U.S. naval facilities on Guam, and 400 miles of U.S. missile sites on Kwajalein in the Marshalls.
These are not the only examples of Chinese expansionism that starts out as soft economic power plays. It recently attempted to purchase 115 square miles in northeast Iceland that would have given it a critical foothold in the North Atlantic, but was fortunately rejected by the Icelandic government. China has also invested billions of euros in Greek infrastructure, such as its primary port city in Piraeus, an industrial zone to the west of Athens. China is investing heavily to modernize Piraeus, giving it a strategic harbor in the Mediterranean.
Taken together with China’s rise as an important naval power, this may indicate a monumental shift in long-term Chinese security policy from a defensive posture to one with a potential offensive capability that should be greatly alarming to U.S. policymakers.
That is why Micronesia matters.
Most individual Micronesians relish their unique relationship with the United States. Under the terms of the Compact they enjoy the freedom to live, work and study in the U.S. without visas. Many now make their homes here. They enlist freely in the U.S. military, and eighteen have given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. They enjoy education and health care entitlements on par with native-born American citizens.
It is that burden, borne primarily by taxpayers in the State of Hawaii where many Micronesians settle, that has precipitated threats by U.S. politicians to unilaterally abscond from key provisions of the Compact. Tension over proposed cuts have furthered resentment among a small but powerful clique of Micronesian leaders who’ve come to see China as a leveraging triumph-card in their frustrated dealings with U.S. Department of the Interior.
As an isolated nation of tiny islands stretching a million miles of ocean, Micronesia is limited in its long-term prospects for economic self-sufficiency. But condescending, even meddling U.S. aid policies smack of botched imperialism making a tough situation unnecessarily worse.
First, U.S. policy makers need to pass management of the U.S.-Micronesian relationship to the Department of State, home to our country’s professional diplomats. They orchestrate dealings with all other sovereign nations across the world. This will allow a deserved autonomy for the Micronesians in managing their own domestic affairs, promoting a more equal partnership.
Second, the U.S. and its allies need to foster the development of robust civil society across the islands. The sprawling, duplicative and unaccountable Micronesian government bureaucracies are unable to provide islanders with even the basics of education or infrastructure needs. Under Interior, these bureaucracies have grown to bloated excess by crowding out private sector and non-profit sector development.
The Chinese understand the situation well. As the U.S. spends millions annually to fund the day-to-day operations of the fledging Micronesian governments, Chinese support is targeted and strategic. Buildings for the personal use of top Micronesian political leaders, college scholarships for those officials’ children and even direct gifts of trips and cash to state, national and traditional village leaders offer the Chinese infinitely more return for their “development” dollar.
There are a few bright spots. A handful of American non-profits are working to support Micronesians directly. The small U.S. charity “Habele” offers tuition scholarships to low-income students attending prestigious private K-12 schools in Micronesia. They donate textbooks directly to isolated public schools. Habele operates without assistance from either American or Micronesian governments, cutting the bureaucratic middleman out completely. It’s the stuff of Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s “Ugly American” but it pales in comparison to size and scope of Chinese influence peddling. Former Peace Corps Volunteers fluent in local languages and customs founded Habele in 2006.
If America is to regain its historic — and strategically essential — position of leadership in the Pacific, then Micronesia will need a lot more “Habeles” and a lot less blankets-and-beads style government meddling from the U.S. Department of Interior.
The American people should remember with reverence the valiant dead of Pearl Harbor seventy years after the attack, but they must also keep in mind it was Japan’s expansion into the Pacific that preceded it, beginning as early as 1914, which made it a threat. Because we cannot afford to ignore China’s continued power plays worldwide that could make it the 21st Century’s equivalent of Tojo’s Japan.
Bill Wilson is the President of Americans for Limited Government.