Countering China and bolstering national security dominated the conversation in a Hilton hotel on Guam, 15 hours before and oceans away from the Milwaukee arena hosting the first Republican primary debate.
Nine members of the GOP-led House committee on natural resources convened in the US-governed Pacific island territory for a rare field hearing – during the summer recess – on countering China’s influence in the region.
At a time when Democrats and Republicans view China as an economic and global security threat, island nations who offer the US military proximity to China in exchange for aid emphasized they are especially vulnerable to Chinese cyber-attacks and economic exploitation as they struggle to recover from the pandemic.
“Less than 2,000 miles away lies a threat to America and our allies. The People’s Republic of China under the tyranny of the Chinese Communist party not only seeks to challenge American leadership but is aggressively working to undermine the Democratic values and institutions we cherish,” said the Republican chairman, Bruce Westerman, of Arkansas, in his opening remarks.
Westerman pointed to a security breach in May, in which US officials and Microsoft found that a Chinese government-sponsored hacking group had targeted critical US infrastructure on Guam, as an example of CCP aggression in the region.
Westerman said there was “a distinct difference between the PRC’s leadership and the many Chinese citizens who long for that same freedom that we as Americans enjoy”.
The Biden administration has moved to expand its diplomatic presence in the Pacific islands as part of its national security strategy against China. Last spring, the Solomon Islands signed a security pact with China, raising alarm bells that the CCP was seeking to establish a permanent military presence in the region. Last fall, Joe Biden hosted a first-ever summit of Pacific islands leaders in Washington, and he is set to host another this September.
At the Thursday hearing, Pacific island officials testified that while they welcome deepened ties with the US, China could exploit any gaps in that relationship.
“The CCP moves aggressively to fill perceived voids in America’s assistance and to capitalize on social and economic vulnerabilities of the Pacific island communities,” said Kaleb Udui Jr, the finance minister of Palau, citing land grabs, expanding fisheries and other forms of political interference. He also said there was “clear influence” on government officials as China has offered trips to Beijing and hosted in-country events, “where we later found out the connections to organized crime or the CCP”.
“If the US does not engage actively, China will,” said Lou Leon Guerrero, the Democratic governor of Guam.
All three non-voting congressional delegates of the US’s Pacific island territories – Democrat Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan of the Northern Mariana Islands and Republicans Jim Moylan of Guam, and Amata Coleman Radewagen of American Samoa – are members of the natural resources committee and attended the field hearing. Westerman specifically thanked Moylan, a freshman delegate, for inviting the panel to visit Guam.
Earlier this year, the Biden administration finalized negotiations with three island nations – the Marshall Islands, Palau and the Freely Associated States of Micronesia – to renew power-sharing agreements known as the Compacts of Free Association (Cofa), which give the US military access to strategic areas in the Pacific Ocean in exchange for economic aid.
The US appointed a special envoy for the compact negotiations, Joseph Yun, who secured renewed deals with all three island nations after a holdout from the Marshall Islands.
“The sad fact is that the US has fallen far short of treating us equally, fairly and consistently with the compact,” testified Jack Ading, the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, who earlier called for more US compensation for nuclear testing after the second world war.
“Unresolved problems from the nuclear tests and radioactive waste is a serious irritant in our relations, and has the potential for being exploited by China,” said Ading, who claimed that the effects from US nuclear detonation on the Marshall Islands was equal to “1.7 Hiroshima bombs every day for 12 years.”
Ading said the compact agreement would not solve the nuclear issue but would be an important step toward doing so.
While much of the panel’s questions focused on countering China’s influence, non-voting delegates and island officials also sought to raise issues of labor and housing shortages in their communities, as well as ask for additional resources to support education, build hospitals and protect the environment.
Island leaders also emphasized the need for more US engagement to effectively counter the power of Chinese investment.
“How do we address that? I think the federal agencies need to become more involved, not just in regulations, but become more involved in the development,” said Arnold Palacios, the governor of the Northern Mariana Islands, an independent.