Viewing South Pacific nations as strategic pawns, can US offer reliable “economic aid”?
Published: Oct 17, 2023 10:26 PM
View of Marshall Islands, Micronesia Photo: VCG

View of Marshall Islands, Micronesia Photo: VCG

According to Reuters, the US signed a new 20-year agreement on Monday on economic assistance to the Marshall Islands worth $2.3 billion. This assistance includes grant assistance and trust-fund contributions as well as money for long-neglected civilian infrastructure around the crucial US missile test range on Kwajalein Atoll.

The Marshall Islands is the last of the three nations that have US ties governed by so-called Compacts of Free Association (COFAs) to agree to new deals, following Palau and Micronesia. This is largely due to disagreements over how to address the legacy of massive US nuclear testing there in the 1940s and 1950s. 

These nuclear tests ignored local safety, caused ecological damage, and left lasting issues. The US had promised economic compensation to the South Pacific, especially the Marshall Islands, but it was considered insufficient. After the Cold War, the US no longer saw strategic importance in these remote areas and refused to fully compensate for nuclear tests. 

The fact that the US has increased presence in the South Pacific region in recent years is because the US believes that China's cooperation with the South Pacific region challenges its influence, Chen Hong, president of the Chinese Association of Australian Studies and director of the Australian Studies Center at East China Normal University, told the Global Times. The Marshall Islands and other countries in the region are increasingly considered strategically important to the US. The US believes that on the one hand, it needs to contain China in the South Pacific region and, on the other hand, it is trying to transform the region into a base and stepping stone to implement its Indo-Pacific Strategy by using an "Island hopping" tactic from World War II, ultimately threatening China.

The assistance provided by the US to the South Pacific is mostly focused on so-called "institutional development" and "capacity building" in island countries. In essence, it involves transplanting and imposing Western political systems and social governance models, which fundamentally do not contribute to improving the local economy and raising the living standards of the people. 

This one-way, imposition of ideological assistance by the US to South Pacific island nations, which may not be compatible with their own situations, is unlikely to achieve lasting, practical, and successful results, said Chen Hong.

In contrast, China provides direct economic assistance and investment in the South Pacific region, improving infrastructure, and enhancing the business environment and labor quality. China follows the principle of "Four Respects," seeking mutual benefit and cooperation, which has been well-received by South Pacific island nations. China is not interested in competing with any country in the South Pacific region, while the US, influenced by its hegemonic thinking, wrongly believes that China is competing with it for the so-called influence and attempts to maintain its hegemonic position by suppressing and excluding China. 

US policy often aims to force small or island nations to obey, including them into the US sphere of influence. The US maintains a Cold War mind-set, often attaching political conditions and compelling other countries to follow its command. The US attempts to treat these nations as pawns on its strategic chessboard, a practice that will ultimately backfire because it does not align with the actual needs of these countries. Over time, these nations will gradually recognize the true intentions of the US and make informed choices regarding friends and partners.

Noticeably China emphasizes equality, proposing building a global community of shared future, with a focus on mutual benefit and win-win cooperation. China's policy is not aimed at controlling other countries but rather seeks to establish partnerships. China's policy is sustainable and has withstood the test of time and history, as noted by Shen Shishun, director of the Department for Asia-Pacific Security and Cooperation at the China Institute of International Studies.