Temperatures rising: The struggle for bases and access in the Pacific Islands

Republic of Singapore Navy guided-missile frigate RSS Tenacious arrives in preparation for Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) military exercises at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, U.S. June 25, 2018. Picture taken June 25, 2018.  U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jason Abrams/Handout via REUTERS.     ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY

Executive summary

The Pacific island clusters of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia share a geopolitical reality: they lie in the main space that separates the world’s two biggest powers. The United States has retained an arc of territories and bases across the northern reaches of Oceania, though it has at times neglected the underlying relationships that support this access. Recently, China has been trying to take advantage of that neglect by advancing its economic, resource, and diplomatic interests in the region. The Pacific Islands are particularly important to China’s “counterinsurgency” strategy, which seeks to prevent reinforcement of the United States’ position inside the first island chain — a string of islands that encloses the seas immediately off China’s eastern coast. Beijing’s tactics involve using presence, investment, diaspora, elite ties, corruption, and pressure to acquire diplomatic relationships and logistics access. Not all Chinese advances have been successful, but China is making inroads across the southern reaches of the region. While the United States, Australia, and Japan are undertaking robust (albeit belated) soft power efforts to dull China’s expanding influence, questions around employing hard power loom. The United States is still debating whether to reinforce its military presence inside the first island chain, under the shadow of Chinese missile trajectories, or fall back to the second chain — or beyond — in Oceania.