The South Pacific has once again become a strategic theater for Great Power competition, and the US is falling behind. Still, it is not too late to win the day and cement American primacy in a critical region.
What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “South Pacific”? For most, it likely conjures up images of white sandy beaches, lush tropical forests, and incredibly expensive vacations. Others may think of the musical of the same name, or the hard-fought WWII campaign pitting the Americans against the Japanese. For a small number of us, it brings to mind one thing above all else: strategic competition. The region has been a hotbed of imperial rivalry for at least the past 150 years, ebbing and flowing in its importance as various world powers have risen and fallen. Now, its strategic role has returned with a vengeance, as China vies with the United States and its regional allies for local primacy. New developments in the China-US competition over these myriad islands have brought the issue into sharper focus, called to mind important historical parallels, and led to a key question: what should the US do to claim the upper hand in this struggle for power and influence?
First, the background. The map above shows the South Pacific region, marking each distinctive subregion and showing the independent nations and overseas territories which spread across the area. As you can see, this critical area abuts many of the world’s most heavily-trafficked maritime shipping routes, separates Australia from the rest of the Pacific Ocean, and implicates the territorial interests of several major powers, especially the United States. The region has recently crossed the radar of some mainstream news outlets in the US, as it hosted a whirlwind diplomatic tour by the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, who visited several key island nations including the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu, Tonga, and Kiribati. That tour, as well as Chinese dictator Xi Jinping’s regional visits in 2014 and 2018, demonstrated China’s desire for diplomatic and strategic primacy in the South Pacific. China has elevated several of these nations to the classification of “comprehensive strategic partner,” the highest status Beijing bestows in its diplomatic relations. Chinese investment has poured into the region, with infrastructure projects promised, economic ties deepened, and a fast-track to development laid out.
Unlike some ‘experts’ in the field (such as the Council on Foreign Relations), I firmly believe that Chinese actions in the South Pacific are part of a broader grand strategic plan to gain primacy – if not outright hegemony – in the region for both military and economic purposes. Foreign Minister Wang’s trip was intended to cement these regional ties through a formal partnership which would bind the nations of the South Pacific tightly into Beijing’s orbit. The proposal included collaboration on cybersecurity and disaster response, a more integrated trade system (tilted towards China, of course), funding for Chinese cultural institutions like the Confucius Centers which spread CCP propaganda across the world, and increased infrastructure investment. More sinisterly, it also increased the level of Chinese control over local security forces, allowed for military basing and operations – including in the increasingly important domain of space – and brought Chinese-style monitoring and surveillance capacities to the islands. (For a deep dive into the proposals themselves, this article is excellent.) Some local leaders were farsighted enough to see the major implications of China’s proposals, including the President of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) David Panuelo, who wrote of it to his fellow regional leaders, saying it was “the single-most game-changing proposed agreement in the Pacific in any of our lifetimes.” He further said:
The language of these documents is a sign that China has faithfully done its homework, as the choice of words are, on their face and at first glance, attractive to many of us—perhaps all of us. They speak of democracy and equity and freedom and justice […] Where the problems arise are in the details, and the details suggest that China is seeking […] to acquire access and control of our region, with the result being the fracturing of regional peace, security, and stability. … [The agreement] seeks to ensure Chinese control of ‘traditional and non-traditional security’ of our islands, including through law enforcement training, supplying, and joint enforcement efforts, which can be used for the protection of Chinese assets and citizens. [It] seeks Chinese control and ownership of our communications and infrastructure, as well as customs and quarantine infrastructure […] for the purpose of biodata collection and mass surveillance of those residing in, entering, and leaving our islands, ostensibly to occur in part through cybersecurity partnerships. … I am aware that the bulk of Chinese research vessel activity in the FSM has followed our Nation’s fiber optic cable infrastructure, just as I am aware that the proposed language in this agreement opens our countries up to having our phone calls and emails intercepted and overheard.
Thankfully, these overtures were, at least temporarily, declined by the nations which Wang visited. But this does not spell the end of the CCP push to gain an empire of sorts in the South Pacific; on the contrary, this was merely an opening gambit.
China has many long-term strategic interests in the region, and its influence is rising concomitantly with the salience of those interests to CCP cadres. One such interest is in fully severing Taiwan from its international relations as a prelude for a total invasion and ‘reclamation’ of Taiwan’s sovereign territory. The islands of the South Pacific are some of the last nations on Earth to keep diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but Chinese largesse and diplomatic pressure are starting to change that. As many reports have put China’s timetable for a Taiwan invasion as coming before 2027, this is a priority for the nation’s diplomacy. Besides that key goal, China is deeply interested in the South Pacific for both economic and strategic purposes. One must only look at the map of Wang’s visit (below) to understand that reality. That map marks the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of the region; under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, each nation gets a zone of economic control spanning up to 200 nautical miles from its coast, even the smallest island nations or territories. That means that a tiny nation like Kiribati controls a vast maritime area which puts it on par territorially with nations like India that vastly exceed it population-wise. It also means that a more powerful nation like China could easily bully its way into gaining de facto control over these large, resource-rich waters. Besides fisheries – a sector in which China is exceedingly aggressive and militarized – these EEZs include potential oil and natural gas fields, as well as a resource which is becoming both more scarce and more necessary in China: sand. The depths of the South Pacific also hold the nervous system of the modern world: the fiber optic communications cables which link the continents and allow for the immediate transmission of information. On top of this, a quick look at the map can show how the region holds strategic control over much of Southeast Asia and the Antipodes (Australia & New Zealand). The areas visited by Wang almost form a barrier cutting off the Antipodes from the wider world; when this is combined with the new Chinese naval base in Cambodia, the inroads China has in Singapore, and the Chinese domination of the South China Sea, a clear picture of strategic control emerges.
What does this have to do with the United States? That same map shows the answer clearly: the US is a Pacific nation, and our interests and sovereign territory are impacted by the goings-on there. Besides the general interests that any global power would have in such a strategically-critical area – communications, fisheries, other resources, free movement – America has specific interest in the South Pacific. We have multiple organized territories in the region, from American Samoa to Guam to the Northern Mariana Islands, multiple military outposts on less-populated islands, and a US state – Hawaii – within striking distance. Our EEZs directly abut those of the nations visited on Wang’s recent trip, including Kiribati, Tonga, and Samoa. This is not allied territory – although that exists in spades in the region as well – but land that is as much a part of the United States as are New York and Texas. We are also very close partners with multiple nations in the area, from Australia and New Zealand (both part of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group) to Japan and the Philippines, and even France. In short, we cannot avoid engagement with the region, and doing so would be detrimental to our national security and our ability to project power across the globe. The strategic problem of Chinese primacy in the South Pacific is a complex one, and requires a broad approach. Interests must be balanced, different constituencies appeased, and various ally groups managed. In this task, history can be a guide.
The most widely known historical conflict over the South Pacific is the naval campaign between the United States and Imperial Japan in WWII, in which thousands died and fierce firefights raged on even the smallest uninhabited atoll. That theater of the war was brutal and bloody, and as such isn’t really a great model for our current issue, which is that of a peacetime Great Power rivalry involving allies, complex geopolitics, and competition across both economic and strategic sectors. Given those factors, I believe that the most relevant past rivalry over the South Pacific is that of the late 19th century, involving Britain, Germany, and the newly-imperial United States.
The international scramble for colonial territories and foreign markets was seen across the region – the US annexed Hawaii and captured the Philippines from Spain, Britain expanded to various islands between Canada and the Antipodes, and Germany gained control over the Solomon Islands, the Bismarck Archipelago, and much of New Guinea. The competition over the remaining island chains, including the strategically-important Samoan islands, was heightened as the century neared a close. This imperial expansion, especially in the South Pacific, was driven by ideology – mainly the navalist proclamations of the American strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan. He linked militarism and trade, and promoted the critical need for naval coaling stations, ports, communications infrastructure, and colonies to defend, promote, and expand commerce. A strong blue-water navy was crucial to this strategic frame. Mahan’s vital insight was that economic growth necessitated colonial growth which necessitated naval growth; this vision was widely accepted across Britain, Germany, and the US, driving expansionist competition. The South Pacific was a key link in the imperial chain, providing useful defensive waystations between the rapidly developing markets of Asia and the Americas, and – for Britain – protecting the important Dominions of Australia and New Zealand which were gaining political power in their own right. The issues Britain, as the dominant power, dealt with at the time – the advent of undersea communications cables, the need for key maritime commercial lanes to remain open, the sub-imperial pressure from the Antipodes to halt foreign advances in their vicinity, and the complex mix of overlapping interests – are reminiscent of the issues the US is dealing with today as the currently dominant power. One specific territory was implicated heavily in the imperial competition in the South Pacific in the late 1800s: Samoa. Conveniently enough, it is not only playing a similar role today, but its role the first time around led the US into a permanent presence in the region that drives our modern interests.
The US, Germany, and Britain all had interests in Samoa and its environs since the mid-19th century; they set up trading houses, invested in plantations, and made naval visits to the islands. German interests stretched back to at least 1856 and were particularly active in Samoa, often conflicting with British traders and officials from the Antipodean Dominions. German firms monopolized much of the trade in the region, leading to greater political involvement from Berlin and creating problems with expansionist colonists in New Zealand who sought further British annexations in the area. In 1884, Germany responded to riots in Samoa which damaged the property of its citizens by pressuring the King of Samoa into granting Germany de jure control over the islands’ security, treasury, and judiciary. (This is an eerily similar circumstance to what China has done in the Solomon Islands in the past two years: using anti-China riots to cudgel the government of the Solomon Islands into agreeing to a wide-ranging security and governance pact. Someone is learning from the past, or else there’s something in the water in the South Pacific.) In 1886 and 1887, Germany again intruded in Samoan politics, attempting to install a pro-German ruler and sending troops to enforce its claims. These developments caused significant concern in Britain and the US, both in government and press circles; the American warships which arrived in the South Pacific ended this German incursion and resulted in 1889 in a joint Anglo-American-German condominium over the territory. This joint governance would last nearly a decade without major issue, but the wound would open again upon the death of the Samoan king in August 1898.
The years between the two incidents only heightened the region’s salience and strategic usefulness: new trans-Pacific cables were laid, economic activity grew, Mahanian navalism was fully embraced at the government level, and new politicians stoked antagonisms on all sides. Germany had embarked on a course towards massive naval expansion meant to rival the great naval powers of the time, including the dominant power, Britain. By 1898, the Anglo-German antagonism was beginning to reach a fever pitch – the next few years would spell the end for any possibility of an alliance or even a partnership between London and Berlin. The Samoan crisis was a major part of that deterioration in Anglo-German relations, and it also foreshadowed the increasing alignment between American and British interests – or at least the lack of direct negative sentiment. In response to the German attempts at effective control over Samoa, a joint Anglo-American response was proffered: warships from both nations bombarded the capital city of Apia, marines were landed, and the German consulate occupied. This intervention riled the German press and the pressure groups which were gaining in power and prominence, heightening the importance of Samoa to German politicians. The future Chancellor and then-Foreign Secretary Bernhard von Bülow – the architect of the Weltpolitik (world policy) which drove Imperial Germany’s politics through the First World War – needed to placate the pro-colonial parties which were key to the government’s policies. As such, he stated that “the Samoan question stands now as before in the forefront of my interest,” and delivered a quote that serves as the title for this essay: “the entire Samoan question has absolutely no material, but an ideal and patriotic interest for us.” This was not to say that Berlin had no economic interest in Samoa, but that the political and strategic interests it had in the region were paramount – just as with China today.
Domestic colonial fever, combined with the rising Anglophobia of the populace, the intellectual and cultural elite, and the political classes, made the Samoan crisis especially inelastic and stubborn. Although Germany could not repel or even counter the Anglo-American escalation due to its relative inability to project power globally – more on which soon – their negotiating posture was highly aggressive and their demands significant. According to the historian Paul Kennedy, this led Bülow into refusing the generous offer of territorial compensation elsewhere made by the influential British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain (the father of Neville) in order to hold fast on a demand for full evacuation of British forces and total German control of the main Samoan island. Lord Salisbury, the British Prime Minister, was told by the German ambassador Count Hatzfeldt that failure to settle the Samoan issue to the Kaiser’s satisfaction would result in the ambassador’s withdrawal and a break in relations – an extreme escalation over such a seemingly minor territorial dispute. Salisbury eventually gave in and an agreement was reached in which Germany and the United States would split the Samoan islands, Britain would receive Tonga and some of the Solomon Islands, and Britain and Germany would exchange some African territories.
This was merely a prestige victory for Germany, as the episode clearly showed its naval weakness and essential inability to defend its growing colonial empire. Those weaknesses would have to be corrected if the dream of world-empire was to be realized; thankfully for Bülow and other proponents of Weltpolitik, the Samoan crisis provided an opportunity to use public sentiment to cement German imperial power. On the back of the public outcry over Samoa, Bülow and Alfred von Tirpitz, Germany’s naval strategist par excellence, pushed through an expanded Navy Law which was directly oriented against Britain. In fact, its preface stated as much:
It is not necessary that the battle fleet at home is equal to that of the greatest naval power. In general this naval power would not be in a position to concentrate its entire naval forces against us. Even if it succeeds in encountering us with a superior force, the destruction of the German fleet would so much damage the enemy that his own position as a world power would be brought into question.
The “greatest naval power” could only refer to one nation – Britain – something which further exacerbated the totalized global rivalry which would presage total war. One can only hope that the current competition over the South Pacific doesn’t end the same way, but that would require us to learn the lessons from our hegemonic forebears.
So, what can the United States do in 2022 to forestall Chinese dominance of this strategically critical region of the world? There are many actions we can take to restore our influence in the South Pacific – some small, some large – but all must be on the table, and we must move immediately, as we are already falling far behind. That lagging pace is due to systematic underinvestment by American policymakers, diplomats, and military thinkers, as well as a failure of strategic focus in prioritizing counterterrorism in an age of Great Power conflict. The first thing we can do is correct that political disposition and engage in a bipartisan, cross-branch manner to reorient our strategic policy towards countering China across the globe. That means putting petty disagreements aside to come together to pass genuinely important measures to strengthen our international hand in this 21st century Great Game. Both Congress and the executive branch play a role here, as we require new funding and legislative measures from the former and need diplomatic redirection and implementation from the latter. This cannot be only a government project, however, as the private sector will need to be brought in as well to provide the services desired by the nations of the region. The British understood this need during the pre-WWI era and worked to ensure public and private interests worked in concert to power British dominance in the region. We must take that same broad approach if we wish to mirror the British success.
Our initial policy priority must be to rebuild our diplomatic relationships in the South Pacific, relationships which have been neglected and ignored for far too long. That means the creation of new permanent positions, ambassadorships, consulates, and diplomatic posts in the region, signaling a real, tangible, on-the-ground effort. We have relied on rhetoric from afar without taking the local temperature, meeting the regional leadership where it is at, or acting on our nebulous promises. That needs to stop. Our focus should be on concrete deliverables which will help the people and governments of the region; we cannot beat Chinese construction with American speeches, but we sure as hell can beat Chinese construction with American construction. To that end, the US should work with these nations to build and maintain critical infrastructure, both physical and governance-related. We have some of the most competent and expert engineers on the planet, as well as the technical capacity and materiel to rapidly improve the existing infrastructure on these islands. The federal government should increase its foreign aid to the region, focusing on incentivizing American firms to work with locals to complete these projects through loan guarantees and other subventions. Given the size and population of the region, a relatively minor investment could go a very long way; the $40 billion worth of aid we just sent to Ukraine (justifiably so, in my eyes) would be more than four times the total GDP of the entire South Pacific in 2020. A fraction of that amount would be a game-changer in the region.
Other investments should be made and actions taken to directly target and counter Chinese actions in the South Pacific. One such investment should be made in the realm of security services, which the Chinese government has focused heavily on. The US has an enormous surplus of military and policing materiel, which would serve our interests better if it was shipped abroad than if it either languished in storage or was rarely used by domestic police forces. Linking the local security forces with the American security state would give us a strong foothold in a critical sector. In addition, there is no doubt in my mind that the American security services, both military and civilian, are more professional and better trained than their Chinese counterparts. We should be transmitting that knowledge and contracting with local forces to improve their ability to provide independent security for the islands instead of relying on outside (read: Chinese) contractors. In so many ways, our knowledge is our power. One of the main exhibitions of that power is through our world-class education system. We should be offering scholarships, training, and exchange programs to South Pacific islanders to combat the same offerings which are coming from Beijing. Right now, what China is offering looks great; when compared to similar potential American offers, they look like cheap knock-offs.
Another area in which we can easily outcompete China – and one which may help gain some buy-in from the political left – is on climate resilience. The island nations of the South Pacific are on the front lines of climate change, dealing with rising sea levels and other maritime issues far more regularly than most other countries. As climate is a global issue that is not being solved anytime soon – in no small part due to China’s continuing increase in emissions – the focus for government policy should be resilience and adaptation. Given the need for this approach in the South Pacific especially, we can use it as something of a test lab for potential wider solutions. This will help our future resilience at home, while also providing much-needed, and oft-requested, support to the region.
The final recommendations I will offer here are larger in scale and relate just as much to the broader geopolitical struggle against Chinese totalitarianism as they do to the specific case of the South Pacific. If we are to win the day in either the regional or global competition against the CCP and its partners, we need to work closely with our own allies to create an anti-China bloc with some serious teeth. The Quad arrangements with India, Australia, and Japan, as well as the AUKUS (Australia, UK, US) relationship are both key to the broad and narrow struggle. In the South Pacific, Australia is the main player and the most impacted by the growing influence of Beijing; the maps above tell that story clearly. Japan is also deeply implicated in the region given its location and the potential for it to be cut off from the south by Chinese expansion. Working tightly with those partners is a must if we seek to roll back and contain China’s power. Coordination in actions, not just messages, is needed. With Japan and Australia, as well as more peripheral regional actors like the UK, America is in a good position as compared to China, which has to rely on its satellite states, partners further afield, and a Russia which is preoccupied elsewhere. Another major policy change which would greatly aid in American reclamation of its predominance in the South Pacific is simple, although it has been stuck in the wheels of legislative and executive bureaucracy for years: a vastly expanded navy. China has been building naval vessels at a rapid pace, while we are way behind when we’re not scrapping usable ships or financing useless boondoggle programs. There are others who are more expert on modern naval affairs than I am (check out the CDR Salamander Substack for great info), but all agree that we need to invest in our navy if we are to deter China and protect and project American power. We were a maritime nation before we were a continental one, and we must not forget that legacy and that deep need. Our power rests on our trade and our world-system which allows for the free transit of goods across the seas; only a strong navy will continue to allow us to support that system. A total rethink of our naval spending and policy can bring us into the world of Great Power rivalry and conflict as the dominant contender instead of as an aging behemoth being surpassed by new, more agile challengers.
Great Power competition waits for no one. China has already begun playing the modern version of the Great Game, racking up diplomatic victories and expanding its influence across the global chess board. The South Pacific may not seem important in the grand scheme of things, but if history is any guide, the region punches far above its strategic weight. Not playing in the South Pacific isn’t an option; losing shouldn’t be one either.
 Much of what follows will be based on my thesis research on the Anglo-German strategic/economic rivalry before WWI. Sources not linked in the text are Erik Grimmer-Solem’s Learning Empire: Globalization and the German Quest for World Status, 1875-1919 and Patrick Kelly’s Tirpitz and the Imperial German Navy.
2 thoughts on ““An Ideal and Patriotic Interest”: Strategy in the South Pacific”
Congratulations on your thesis defense. May you continue writing such thoughtful essays in future graduate studies.
Good point on climate change and China (as well as India). While they deservedly take the criticism for their lack of interest in climate talks, we must remember there is a reason they spew; i.e., NIMBY western countries that like their clean air 🙂
In any case, low lying land masses will be the first hit. Those islands may clearly get smaller footprints!
Thank you so much! And I’m with you on the climate point. Adaptation is the best policy at this stage.