China as an Alternative to US Militarization of the Pacific

Ten years ago, the UN Special Rapporteur went on a special mission to a place far away which had suffered and continues suffering from the impacts of US nuclear tests and nuclear waste dumping in the Pacific. That place is the Marshal Islands and, together with the other Pacific Island Countries, it now finds itself at the center of the geopolitical race between the US and China.

The UN Special Rapporteur visited the Marshal Islands in 2012 for the first time ever and focused his first fact-finding mission on the human rights impacts associated with the 67 nuclear tests conducted by the United States in the islands from 1946 to 1958. During most of that time, the Marshall Islands was a part of the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands administered by the United States. The UN Special Rapporteur presented a report to the UN Human Rights Council in September, 2012, which outlined the various ways that the US nuclear tests impacted and continue impacting negatively human rights there. The visit included the Bikini, Enewetak, Rongelap and Utrik islands.

The UN fact-finding mission found that US nuclear testing resulted in both immediate and continuing effects on the human rights of the Marshallese. The right to health has been negatively affected. According to information received by the Special Rapporteur, radiation from the testing resulted in fatalities and in acute and long-term health complications. The effects of radiation have been exacerbated by irreversible environmental contamination, leading to the loss of livelihoods and lands. Moreover, many people continue to experience indefinite displacement. Some comparisons point to the nuclear pollution on the Marshal Islands being manifold worse than that in Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Fast-forward 10 years, and we find ourselves today, in the diplomatic and security race between the US and China in the Indo-Pacific.  The reason this account of the past is to be recalled now is the US-Pacific Island Countries Summit which the Biden Administration plans for 28-29 September in Washington. The US is looking for a way forward and will be trying to present itself as an alternative to China in the region.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement that the Summit will emphasize “history, values, and people-to-people ties” between the U.S. and Pacific island countries.

“History” matters and the islands remember the past. “History” and “values” speak of hypocrisy and are absolutely the wrong way to go about it. It is not in the US advantage to do so. The White House has a blind spot regarding history here. The US has a shameful track record in the Pacific Islands when it comes to nuclear testing and nuclear waste dumping. If the Biden Administration wants to bring these countries closer, it needs to emphasize the future because the past would naturally bring these islands into China’s arms.

To recall the UN Special Rapporteur, there is a need for effective remedy, for strategic and long-term vision to tackle the residual consequences of the nuclear testing program; and to ensure sustainable progress beyond 2023, when U.S. assistance under the Compact of Free Association expires. The Compacts of Free Association is the arrangement that has governed US-Marshall relations for the past 30 years. Compacts of Association are bilateral agreements between the United States and three countries of the Micronesian region, including the Marshall Islands. As Angela Smith argues in The Diplomat, as part of the COFAs, the “military clause” gives the United States exclusive rights to maintain defense assets in the territorial lands and waters of these nations, and that is gold for the US in the moment. In exchange, these countries receive a variety of funding and services from the U.S. government, including the provision of their security and the ability to migrate to the US. The Biden Administration is aware that these agreements expire and China might as well take the US’s place as the main security provider for lands and waters that were previously US turf.

The US has to be nervous. After China’s security deal with the Solomon Islands in April, 2022 and its proposal for a region-wide security deal, the U.S. sent a special envoy to the Marshal Islands to start negotiations right away. The Biden administration is in a hurry to bring these island countries closer, as the Solomon Islands made a security pact with China, which Politico called “China’s diplomatic win”.

The Solomon Islands and China are in a natural alignment. China is among the first signatories to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, along with 10 Pacific island nations. The Pacific Island Countries are rightly worried about the militarization of the region. They remember. Pacific countries have a history of opposing nuclear weapons, having lived through horrible times. Pacific States make up 10 of the 50 total ratifications of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. China was one of the first signatories. There is a clear alignment between China and island countries on the nuclear front.

Both the Pacific Islands and China worry about the militarization of the region by the United State, including the AUKUS agreement between the US, UK and Australia. In October 2021, the Salomon Islands Prime Minister addressed the UN General Assembly warning against the militarization of the region. He meant the US and company. China supported the Solomon Islands’ statement. The speech that preceded the pact with China was in response to the US, UK and Australia plan to bring in nuclear submarines to the Pacific Ocean through the AUKUS agreement, a trilateral security pact agreed on in September 2021. Closer to the signing of the agreement with China, US high level officials visited the Solomon Islands trying to dissuade the country’s leadership. The US delegation included Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and officials from the Department of Defense, National Security Council, and USAID. Their aim was “to advance a free, open, and resilient Indo-Pacific,” as the State Department said. The delegation failed to persuade the Solomon Islands and they signed with China.

What Pacific Island Counties rightly perceive is the geostrategic militarization of their region. The clear intention of AUKUS is to tip the military balance in the Indo-Pacific in favor of the United States, argues Jada Fraser at John Hopkins SAIS. But the US needs the islands to play along. Most recently, on Aug. 30 the Solomon Islands refused entry to US and UK ships. The US and the UK navies already feel the impact of the Solomon Islands’ pact with China in very practical terms. The pro-China leader of the Solomon Islands has delayed elections until next year, so the relations with China will only unfold further over the next months.

US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, visited Fiji in February this year to meet leaders of Pacific Islands countries. Despite the diplomatic efforts, when it comes to nuclear affairs in the region, the Pacific Island Countries are naturally better aligned with China than the US and its AUKUS pact with the UK and Australia to bring nuclear submarines in the region.

The region remembers the horrors of the US nuclear tests and nuclear waste dumping, as I previously outlined in The Geopolitics.

The AUKUS agreement is history repeating itself. The Islands reasonably turn to China and that’s not something that the Biden Administration can change with diplomacy, unless it changes course on its aggressive policy in the Pacific.

Commentators and politicians point to the US “neglect” of the region over decades, assuming that the region slipped away, that this is where the US went wrong. I can assure you, leaving the islands alone, letting them be, is not where the US went wrong. What Pacific Islands foresee now is more of the same in store – once again, militarization of the region and more nuclear risk. If the US wishes to move forward, there is a shameful nuclear past that has to be admitted and redressed. This time around, the Pacific Islands have an alternative – China, and they won’t be swayed to play along on the nuclear front, despite US diplomatic efforts. The past speaks volumes.

[Thomas Peter/Pool Photo via AP]

*Iveta Cherneva is an author and analyst in the areas of geopolitics, foreign policy, security and human rights. She is an opinion contributor for Euronews, Salon, New York Times, The Geopolitics and others. Iveta worked for five UN agencies, US Congress, Oxford University, and other organizations.

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