Admiral Phil Davidson, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command based in Pearl Harbor, Hawai’i, is warning the Pacific countries including the Cook Islands to be wary of the Asian superpower’s expanding presence in the region.
Chinese activities and plans for the region are suspicious, Davidson says. They pose a great security risk not only to the United States but also to the Pacific countries engaging with them.
“Many of your nations suffered from the Japanese occupation during World War II. And then were witness to very serious fighting.
“The United States was part of that, during the course of World War II. You could see that some of China’s activities in the region – I’m not saying they are the same by any means – but it’s reflective of the kind of approach that the Japanese took in the 20s and the 30s.
“I think that would be alarming.”
Cook Islands’ relationship with China has grown in leaps and bounds in recent years.
The country has also joined China’s controversial Belt and Road initiative, despite a survey concluding the Cook Islands is the least suitable country for the initiative.
Deputy Prime Minister Mark Brown earlier defended China’s relationship with the Cooks, saying the two countries have had formal diplomatic relations for 20 years now.
Brown also quashed the US intelligence report released earlier this year which accused China of currying favour with numerous Pacific countries through bribery, infrastructure investments, and diplomatic engagement with local leaders.
The report accused the growing superpower of pursuing the construction of military and other facilities in the region in return.
Brown said the US intelligence report was compiled by their intelligence service which by nature viewed foreign affairs from a threat or adversary perspective.
He was comfortable that the Cooks could manage their relationship with China.
“Our engagement with China is firm. We have had formal diplomatic relations with China for 20 years now. As I understand it we have not signed any formal diplomatic relationship with the USA,” Brown told Cook Islands News this year.
“China has an interest in expanding its global outreach and has offered many Pacific islands development assistance on a bilateral basis.
“Much of this development assistance has been the provision of critical economic and social infrastructure that could not be funded or provided by the more traditional development partners prevalent in the pacific prior to China’s emergence in the early 2000s.
“Many of our fellow Pacific island countries are facing rising population with large youth unemployment and few economic prospects and welcome a new development partner less insistent on policy reforms or social engineering as preconditions to aid.”
Admiral Davidson said China was mounting its presence in the region in all domains.
He said they are doing it diplomatically by building bigger embassies, and more consulates, and by sending more military attachés to work in the embassies.
Admiral Davidson said China was also increasing its footprint in the Pacific region in an economic sense, as commercial investment from the Chinese is evident.
“There is, of course, the One Belt One Road which is a very, I think, unfortunate pernicious approach to development that they’ve revealed in the last few weeks that they do intend to use for security purposes which was unfortunate.
“And you’ve seen some of the discussion over the course of the last year in Sri Lanka and Vanuatu and now Cambodia … this has been highlighted,” Davidson said.
China’s interference in the Hong Kong political turmoil had resulted in deployment of Chinese troops, which should be a lesson to Pacific island countries.
“What China has highlighted as one country-two systems obligation with Hong Kong is part of the transfer agreement that was made in the last century with the British.
“They have now, they haven’t taken direct action, but they’ve now moved Chinese troops into Hong Kong to make sure that the protest movement that’s happening there does not spill into mainland China.
“Between that and some of the very pernicious things that China has done when nations in the region disappoint them.”
Davidson also said China let Australian beef and wine stack up on all the loading docks in China and rot without delivering it when Australia was debating a law about foreign countries investment within their country last year.
“When you kind of connect those dots to Hong Kong to some of those pernicious economic approaches, I think it presents an environment of coercion to nations to comply or submit.
“That’s what happened Hambantota port in Sri Lanka last year. They couldn’t pay back the loans so, therefore, they activated a provision in the lease. Or that provided a lease for 99 years and access to the Chinese military.
“I think it’s a direct threat to everyone’s values and long-term security concerns.”
China’s presence in the region is also one of United States’ long term strategic challenges, Davidson revealed.
“This is clear in the Indo-Pacific framework—the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy that the nation, our nation, has put forth, but many of the others articulate that – is the long term strategic challenge that China presents to the region.
“And that is certainly manifest in the military domain with a very large number of ships and aircraft and missiles that they’re building to threaten their nearest neighbours first.
“But they have a stated long term vision to disrupt the international order that has led to the kind of the global economic structure and global political structure and replace it with one of their own.
“They frequently talk about one of their Chinese characteristics. So we really think that’s the long term strategic threat in the region.”
Admiral Davidson made these comments during a meeting with a group of Pacific journalists who are on a tour of Hawaii, United States and Fiji. These journalists are learning about climate change, economic, infrastructure and security issues affecting the region and the support US provides. The tour is organised by the East West Center of Hawaii. Rashneel Kumar is representing the Cook Islands in this inaugural tour.
[Rashneel Kumar in Washington DC]