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, much of the Japanese fleet was based in Truk Lagoon. 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.