Nov 29, 2023 - World

China's push for influence in Micronesia tests U.S. power in the Pacific

Photo illustration of Micronesia's President David Panuelo and Chinese President Xi Jinping, a meeting at the Great Hall of the People  Beijing, China, boats in the lagoon in Majuro, and a sign  in Pohnpei with various blocks of color and stars forming the flag of Micronesia

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Dave Lawler/Axios, Noel Celis/AFP, Mark Schiefelbein-Pool, Pete McKenzie/The Washington Post via Getty

This story is part of a series supported by the Pulitzer Center.

POHNPEI, Federated States of Micronesia — Beijing is persistently courting one of America's closest partners in the Pacific, giving Micronesia the benefit of two superpower benefactors but prompting fears among local leaders that the island nation could be caught up in a brawl between them.

Why it matters: As U.S.-China competition grows on several fronts and tensions intensify over Taiwan, China is pulling new partners into its Pacific orbit. Beijing's focus on a country with deep ties to the U.S. comes as Washington urgently seeks to upgrade its military footprint in the region and remain the preeminent power.

The U.S. controls Micronesia's vast expanse of ocean, and it funds much of the country's budget. Micronesians attend U.S.-built schools, use U.S. dollars and serve in the U.S. military at a higher rate than any U.S. state.

But allegations earlier this year by then-President David Panuelo that the Chinese government was engaging in "political warfare" put the unlikeliest of countries in the international spotlight and posed deeper questions about the durability of U.S. power in the Pacific.

Just before he left office in May, Panuelo claimed in a letter that members of his own government recorded meetings on behalf of Beijing. He detailed the alleged bribes and perks that came with Beijing's interest and raised concerns about China's growing influence in the country.

Axios traveled to Micronesia and interviewed the country's current and former three leaders — including President Wesley Simina's first interview with an international reporter since taking office — as well as senior members of Micronesia's Congress, foreign diplomats and others to probe Panuelo's allegations and assess what the increase in attention from both Beijing and Washington means for the superpowers and the Pacific region.

They described how China has long been courting Micronesia's political elite — from providing small gifts like cellphones and envelopes of cash to constructing state government buildings and residences for the president and other top officials. Beijing has also built roads, schools and government offices, and it's proposed additional projects.

Map: Will Chase/Axios
Map: Will Chase/Axios

Unlike Panuelo, most senior Micronesian officials said they see Beijing's interest as largely positive — both because of the cash and infrastructure China has provided and because its courtship has spurred the U.S. to scale up its own contributions.

But they expressed growing concern that a U.S.-China conflict could ensnare their country.

"I doubt very much that China will go to the U.S. and fight a war. I doubt that the U.S. will go to China and start a war," former president and Sen. Peter Christian said. "But they might fight here."

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