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Jun 12, 2000 | 05:00 GMT

10 mins read

Island Strategy: Why Fiji May Matter

Summary
Last month a political crisis erupted in Fiji. Last week, another exploded in the Solomon Islands. So far, the world has largely shrugged. After all, these are isolated islands in a region that has become a bit of a strategic backwater. But taken together with the steady crumbling of Indonesia, instability on these islands can allow an outside power to gain a strategic advantage. Why? To keep the U.S. Navy out of Asia.
Last month, a political crisis erupted in Fiji: an attempted coup, followed by the seizure of political hostages and a confrontation that continues. Last week, a political crisis exploded in the Solomon Islands. Both cases involve complex internal political, economic and ethnic issues that, in general, are of great interest to the citizenry but not of particular interest to the outside world. It is therefore startling to step back and realize that with these two crises, a virtually unbroken belt of instability now stretches from the Straits of Malacca in western Indonesia to the south central Pacific. It is easy to dismiss this as an interesting coincidence. And it may well be that purely local forces exploded simultaneously. Nevertheless, the strategic implications of events may be very real, if not at all intended by the actors involved. So far, the world has largely ignored the events in the Pacific. No calls for international intervention have gone up. The government in Australia, which has sought a larger role in the region, has in effect shrugged. Alone each of these events means little. But taken as a whole, they could threaten commercial shipping — and naval traffic. If, in the course of a few years, hostile forces emerge in control of these islands and portions of Indonesia, the world will find every reason to care. At one level, there is both a common element and a common force driving events from Indonesia to Fiji. All of these societies are complex mixtures of traditional political arrangements coexisting poorly with approximations of modern states. But the tension between tradition and modernization has not been dealt with satisfactorily in any of these societies. As a result, long-standing ethnic tension has mixed with divergent economic interests to produce the ingredients of instability. This region has, as of late, been a bit of a strategic backwater. But it was not always. During the U.S.-Japanese competition for preeminence in the Pacific from the 1920s until 1945, these islands made up the centerpiece of a great strategic struggle. American power projection into the Western Pacific toward China, Japan, Australia and the Philippines depended on the ability of the U.S. Navy to navigate past these islands. Japanese airfields denied the U.S. fleet passage during World War II. Brutal fighting from Guadalcanal to Tinian revolved around the use of these islands as unsinkable, if immobile aircraft carriers. Defeating the Japanese at Guadalcanal prevented them from moving east through Polynesia. And so the line of supply stretching from Pearl Harbor to Australia was never cut by Japanese air power. The United States could project power to Australia, blocking any plan to invade Australia, and allowing American forces to begin rolling back the Japanese in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea. More than a half-century later, the U.S. Navy still enjoys unchallenged access to and through all of these routes, the most important of which are the sea-lanes through the Indonesian archipelago. Through here pass the U.S. carrier battlegroups on their way to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. Choking these off would cripple Washington's modern-day ability to project power. This is not as unthinkable as it might seem. Every day, Indonesia crumbles literally one island at a time. But what power would be in a position to benefit from this situation? There is but one: China. The government in Beijing is clearly intent on becoming the dominant East Asian power; it has an interest in keeping U.S. forces at bay and it has the means to take advantage. So long as American fleets lurk just over the horizon, China will fail in its ability to redraw a new regional order. Consider the problem from the Chinese viewpoint. The presence of U.S. naval power near — and sometimes just off — the mainland coast makes it difficult for Beijing to control coastal political interests that are naturally inclined to be more oriented toward the outside world than inland China. Today, coastal entrepreneurs have the navy of their foreign financial partners reassuringly over the horizon. The government is acutely aware that the U.S. 7th Fleet affects both the regional balance of power and the domestic psychological fabric. The fact that Beijing cannot solve its Taiwan dilemma is testimony to this fact. For now and the foreseeable future, Beijing has few conventional military levers at its disposal. A blue-water navy capable of challenging the U.S. Navy could be generations away; it certainly won't put to sea in the lifetime of China's current leadership. There is no powerful navy in the world with which the Chinese can ally. But if the current situation in the Pacific continues to deteriorate, it could allow Beijing to reach for an unconventional lever. The goal is not the destruction of the U.S. 7th Fleet; the goal is merely to make access, transit and the concentration of forces thorny. All China would need to do is take advantage of this emerging belt of instability, increase the risk of passage through the central and southern parts of the Pacific Ocean and divert U.S. ships. Instead of, say, showing up unchallenged off of an Asian coast, American forces would have to first figure out how to get there. The problem is partly political and partly technological. The Chinese have worked hard on the technical problem. Knowing that they are weak in both surface weaponry and air power, and aware that U.S. anti-submarine warfare capabilities could probably rapidly diminish China's submarine force, China has concentrated on the use of missiles. In particular, the Chinese have concentrated on developing a generation of land-based anti-ship missiles, including cruise missiles. Already, these missiles have made American planners pause and consider that Beijing can at least partly enforce a blockade of Taiwan. Now, imagine that these missiles are transferred to irregular forces operating on a string of unstable islands in Indonesia and the western and central Pacific Ocean. The United States is suddenly facing an equation very similar to the one it wrestled with in 1942. If the Chinese — or any other power — emulate the Japanese strategy with modern missiles, the American navy would find its way much riskier than ever before. Since the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is already at work on the technical problem, Beijing would have to grapple with the political problem. Even in a crisis, placing Chinese forces on these islands is a difficult task. All of these nations are heavily exposed economically and politically to the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Penetration is not easy, but at the same time Pacific Islanders have been extraordinarily neglected, in many cases by these same countries. Particularly north of the equator, the level of development is so primitive that it is hard to find a government to influence. South of the equator, in Polynesia and some of Melanesia, the problems are so complex and idiosyncratic that it is difficult to get a handle on them. This, of course, is the precise atmosphere in which a relatively low-cost campaign of destabilization and influence-buying could achieve a great deal. Given the fact that no one really is watching, the situation that is now unfolding can present a tremendous strategic opportunity for China. It does not take a lot of resources to buy influence in these places. And it doesn't take a great deal of acumen to trigger crises in societies that are tinderboxes anyway. Certainly, no matter who triggers the crisis, it does not take much to exploit it. Is there any evidence that China is behind any of the crises? Very little, although over the past year some straws have blown in the wind:
  1. Rumors have circulated that conflict in Guadalcanal was related to a struggle between pro-Chinese and pro-Taiwanese factions. Taiwanese foreign ministry spokesman Chen Ming-cheng responded to questions saying, "The turmoil should not be used as an excuse to influence ROC (Taiwan)-Solomon Islands relations." It is interesting that the spokesman didn't just reject the question out of hand.
  2. Nauru, an island nation just northeast of the Solomon Islands, applied for membership into the United Nations and for a time its application was deferred due to Chinese opposition. China objected on the grounds that Nauru had recognized Taiwan. Taiwanese Foreign Minister Jason Hu has called the Chinese policy "naked hegemony" and said that the Chinese stance was intolerable.
  3. China endorsed the application of Kiribati for U.N. membership. The Chinese maintain a satellite and missile tracking facility on Kiribati, which is located on the equator, east of Nauru. Interestingly, Kiribati's government has given final approval to Japan's national Space Development Agency to build a spaceport on remote Kiritimati, or Chistmas Island. On the equator and at 180 degrees longitude, Kiribati occupies an extremely strategic position for missile launches and communications satellite management. Boeing has plans to launch communicates into geostationary orbit from oil drilling platforms towed to the region.
  4. Vanuatu's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Trade and Business Development visited China last summer. The invitation was extended by Chinese Vice Prime Minister Qian Qichen. Vanuatu is sandwiched between Fiji and the Solomons.
The point here is that the governments in Beijing and Taiwan are — unlike much of the rest of the world — acutely aware of the importance of this region. The Chinese are not acting aggressively to expand their influence, but they are acting. Too aggressive a course would undoubtedly trigger a U.S. response. Quiet bridge building is the key. And the Chinese are quietly building bridges. For about 50 years, no one has had any interest in increasing their influence in this region. This may not continue to be the case for much longer. China's need to counter American power — combined with Beijing's limited naval capability — makes a Pacific Island strategy as natural to them as it was to the Japanese decades ago. There is, however, ample time for the United States, Australia and New Zealand, acting in concert, to developing a blocking strategy that is both effective and cheap. The governments in Australia and New Zealand, however, are relatively impervious to strategic thinking these days, tending to look at events piecemeal instead of eyeing long-term threats. And right now U.S. strategy is on autopilot. A potentially important chapter is opening in the Pacific. It will be interesting to see if Beijing takes advantage of it and whether anyone will care enough about this ignored region to devise a counter-strategy.

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