Beijing’s Subversive Political Warfare in the Pacific—and the Need for Greater Engagement by the United States and Taiwan

Beijing’s Subversive Political Warfare in the Pacific—and the Need for Greater Engagement by the United States and Taiwan

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Beijing’s Subversive Political Warfare in the Pacific—and the Need for Greater Engagement by the United States and Taiwan

Honduras has said it intends to shift diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China. We know this story: with the exception of 2007, when St. Lucia switched from Beijing to Taipei, the trend has run in this direction, with China peeling off country after country. The 13 remaining countries that recognize Taiwan are under a constant political warfare assault to switch. In countries like Palau, People’s Republic of China (PRC) representatives make it clear that the individuals who make it happen will be well-rewarded.

The Honduras story was widely reported, with a sense of almost inevitability. But, within the same two weeks, David Panuelo, the President of the Federated States of Micronesia, wrote a remarkable letter to leaders in his country calling for a move in the opposite direction, from China to Taiwan. The reason he did it, and the response, gets right to the heart of China’s goals in the Pacific Islands, and how democracies are responding to Beijing’s plans.

This isn’t Panuelo’s first letter related to concerns over China’s role in the region. In March 2022, as news of a potential Solomons Islands-China security agreement leaked out, Panuelo wrote to Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare expressing his concerns about the “far reaching and grave security implications” of signing such an agreement. 

Sogavare signed anyway. He had switched the country’s diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019. Since then Solomons has postponed elections due to be held in 2023, arranged payouts to 39 out of the 50 members of Parliament from a Chinese slush fund, accepted Chinese police training and equipment (including truck-mounted water cannons), and agreed to a loan from China to fund the setting up of 161 Huawei communications towers.

President Panuelo’s second letter, this time to other Pacific Island leaders, was in response to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s (王毅) May/June 2022 visit to eight Pacific Island countries. Wang was touting China’s “China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision,” to be supported by the “China-Pacific Island Countries Five-Year Action Plan on Common Development (2022-2026).” 

Elements of the “Vision” include: law enforcement cooperation, incorporating “immediate and high-level police training”; “cooperation on network governance and cyber security,” including a “shared future in cyberspace”; the “possibility of establishing [a] China-Pacific Island Countries Free Trade Area”; “enhanc[ing] cooperation in customs, inspections and quarantine”; “creat[ing] a more friendly policy environment for cooperation between enterprises”; setting up Confucius Institutes; training young diplomats; “establish[ing] [a] China-Pacific Island Countries Disaster Management Cooperation Mechanism,” including a prepositioned “China-Pacific Island Countries Reserve of Emergency Supplies”—and much more. 

The “Action Plan” includes: “a Chinese Government Special Envoy for Pacific Island Countries Affairs” (which has since happened); a “China-Pacific Island Countries Ministerial Dialogue on Law Enforcement Capacity and Police Cooperation” (also done); “assistance in laboratory construction used for fingerprints testing, forensic autopsy, drugs, electronic and digital forensics”; “encourag[ing] and support[ing] airlines to operate air routes and flights between China and Pacific Island Countries”; “send[ing] 200 medical personnel” in the next five years; sponsoring “2500 government scholarships” from 2022 to 2025, and much more.

Combined, the Vision and Action plan are a blueprint for influence—if not control—of key levers of national power. This is consistent with Beijing’s trajectory in the region. Over the last several decades China has managed to insert itself throughout the Pacific and build attendant political influence and potential military access in the not-so-distant future —and without firing a shot.  

It all follows a predictable sequence. First, the PRC puts in a commercial presence with Chinese nationals. Where possible, there is a targeting of key industries—such as fishing, lumber, and mining, often “greased” by corruption. There are also highly publicized “infrastructure” projects and “gifts.” This in turn leads to political influence, while creating a constituency that serves as PRC proxies. Dependency can also be deepened by lending to local governments.

This is all done with an eye towards an eventual military presence. Beijing is patient but has a clear objective. The Solomon Islands’ deal with Sogavare shows how this plays out—and will continue to play out. In 2019, Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Both are strategically located—one isolates Australia, while the other has an old World War II US airbase that can be refurbished and is 1500 miles from Pearl Harbor.

China is managing to do what Imperial Japan couldn’t accomplish. It has “taken” Guadalcanal and the rest of the Solomon Islands through political warfare, and is setting itself up to potentially push the United States back towards Hawaii. The reason for the focus is the same as in World War II. The Pacific Islands are key terrain, in the heart of US defenses. Establishing a presence there is leapfrogging the First Island Chain that hems in the PLA, and extends Beijing’s “island hopping” to the Latin American coast.  

Panuelo knew what he was seeing. In the second letter, he wrote that Wang’s proposal was: “The single-most game-changing proposed agreement in the Pacific in any of our lifetimes.” He added that: “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.”

The intention, as he wrote, was: “to shift those of us with diplomatic relations with China very close into Beijing’s orbit, intrinsically tying the whole of our economies and societies to them. The practical impact, however, of Chinese control over our security space, aside from impacts on our sovereignty, is that it increases the chances of China getting into conflict with Australia, Japan, the United States and New Zealand, on the day when Beijing decides to invade Taiwan […] To be clear, that’s China’s long-term goal: to take Taiwan. Peacefully, if possible; through war if necessary.”

Many in the Pacific Islands, including President Panuelo, not only acutely understand the risk to Taiwan, they are aware that their futures are directly tied to any conflict. They have lived through this before, in World War II. For example, the island of Angaur, in Palau (a country that recognizes Taiwan), was the site of brutal battles in World War II that still scar the island and its people. The United States is now building an Over-The-Horizon Radar installation on Angaur. It is widely thought on Angaur that, once the installation is up and running, in the event of a kinetic attack on Taiwan, they will likely be hit first.  

Taiwan often thinks of itself as standing alone, but there are people in the Pacific Islands who know they could die on the same day, and likely just before, anyone in Taiwan. 

This is why President Panuelo’s third letter is even more remarkable. In it, he describes in great detail the “Political Warfare and Grey Zone activity [that] occur within our borders.” He further says: “One of the reasons that China’s Political Warfare is successful in so many arenas is that we are bribed to be complicit, and bribed to be silent. That’s a heavy word, but it is an accurate description regardless. What else do you call it when an elected official is giving an envelope filled with money after a meal at the PRC Embassy or after an inauguration? What else do you call it when a senior official is discreetly given a smartphone after visiting Beijing? […] What else do you call it when an elected official receives a check for a public project that our National Treasury has no record of and no means of accounting for?”

The effect, he writes, is: “Senior officials and elected officials across the whole of our National and State Governments receive offers of gifts as a means to curry favor. The practical impact of this is that some senior officials and elected officials take actions that are contrary to the FSM’s national interest, but are consistent with the PRC’s national interests.” 

He then described the outcomes of this corrosion of the body politic. “So, what does it really look like when so [many] of our Government’s senior officials and elected officials choose to advance their own personal interest in lieu of the national interest? After all, it is not a coincidence that the common thread behind the Chuuk State succession movement, the Pohnpei Political Status Commission and, to a lesser extent, Yap independence movement, include money from the PRC and whispers of PRC support. (That doesn’t mean that persons yearning for secession are beholden to China, of course—but, rather, that Chinese support has a habit of following those who would support such secession).”

The results, he writes, are: “At worst in the short-term, it means we sell our country and our sovereignty for temporary personal benefit. At worst in the long-term, it means we are, ourselves, active participants in allowing a possible war to occur in our region, and very likely our own islands and our neighbors on Guam and Hawaii, where we ourselves will be indirectly responsible for the Micronesian lives lost.”

This leads him, in the letter, to describe discussions that he has had, at his request, with the Foreign Minister of Taiwan, Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), about either recognizing Taiwan or initializing an agreement for a Taipei Economic & Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) in Micronesia. A core reason for that, he explains, is “greatly added layers of security and protection that comes with our country distancing itself from the PRC, which has demonstrated a keen capacity to undermine our sovereignty, reject our values, and use our elected and senior officials for their purposes.”

Given how important the region is to China strategically, he knows how dangerous this is to him personally and writes: “I am acutely aware that informing you all of this presents risks to my personal safety; the safety of my family; and the safety of the staff I rely on to support me in this work. I inform you regardless of these risks, because the sovereignty of our nation, the prosperity of our nation, and the peace and stability of our nation, are more important. Indeed, they are the solemn duty of literally each and every single one of us who took the oath of office to protect our Constitution and our country.”

In Taiwan, discussions about recognition and the Pacific Islands are often just focused on the financial aspects of the issue. If it was just about money, they all would have switched long ago. China has made it clear that it will offer significant inducements to abandon Taiwan. But, incredibly, four are still holding out (Palau, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Tuvalu), and President Panuelo of Micronesia is looking to change the “inevitability” narrative shown by Honduras—something of potentially global importance, as it could show there is another option to eventual absorption by Beijing.

So, what to do about it—how can freedom be defended?

It requires a collaborative effort, but one tailored to each country. For example, in the case of Micronesia, the United States could work with Taiwan and Japan—and include Palau and Marshall Islands, Micronesia’s neighbours. This would add more heft to Taiwan’s efforts—which will always be outmatched by the PRC’s resources—and it also adds Taiwan’s unique contributions to what the US and Japan are doing.

Another approach would need to be developed to serve Solomons, Kiribati and elsewhere. There is no one-size-fits all solution. That means much more attention needs to be paid to the needs of the people and the uniqueness of each country. That’s what China does—but it focuses on identifying and exploiting weaknesses, while democracies should work on identifying and supporting strengths. 

It also means treating locals like real partners, the way the Japanese do. That means fully staffed embassies, with engaged, courageous and innovative representatives. 

And, if you are serious, help the locals go after and expose corruption. The PRC infects the body politic through corruption, but many Pacific nations are ill-equipped to fight it. The language barrier alone is an issue. Taiwan in particular can help locals identify and expose Chinese criminals that set up shop in their nations.  

If anyone believes in a free and open Indo-Pacific, it is imperative to recognize and support the brave leaders in the Pacific who are risking all for the things Taiwan, the United States, Japan and many others say they stand for. In the battle of systems, the Pacific Islands are once again on the front lines. 

President Panuelo has stuck his neck out. China is sharpening the axe. Democratic states, Washington included, must show that he is not alone, and follow his lead in showing that democracy truly is worth fighting for. 

The main point: The PRC is extensively employing political warfare to subvert island states and undermine American defense architecture in the Pacific. The United States and its allies should collaborate more closely with Taiwan to build responsible and effective partnerships with Pacific states, and present them with a better option than the corrosive engagement offered by Beijing.