Afghan-like retreat debacle looms in Pacific islands – Asia Times

Afghan-like retreat debacle looms in Pacific islands - Asia Times

You think America’s tail-between-its-legs departure from Afghanistan was bad? Something even worse is coming in the Pacific, albeit more quietly.

US defenses in the Asia-Pacific center on a defense line running from Japan to Philippines to Taiwan and on to Borneo. The so-called First Island Chain.

Try defending against China along the first island chain without a secure rear area in the Central Pacific. And suppose it’s the Chinese in the rear.

American control of the Central Pacific depends on treaties – known as Compacts of Free Association (COFA) – with three nations: Palau, Federated States of Micronesia and Republic of the Marshall Islands. 

These nations and their huge maritime territory comprise most of an east-west corridor from Hawaii to the western edge of the Pacific which is essential for US control and military operations in the region.

The COFAs give the United States the legal authority to operate freely and to keep other nations’ militaries out.  In other words, military access and control. 

As part of the agreements, the three nations receive American financial and other support including their citizens’ right to reside and work in America. And one should never forget that COFA state citizens serve in the US military at higher per-capita rates than residents of almost all US states.

The COFA agreements are up for renewal, and the agreements have passed the tortuous dozen or so committees and now just need to be voted on and passed. That is very much in doubt.

One issue is $2.3 billion in offsets. That means that to fund the COFAs, US$2.3 billion has to come out of the federal budget elsewhere. The $2.3 billion is over 20 years so it averages out to about $40 million a year for each country. Yes, $40 million. A half-hour of Medicaid fraud.  

We blew a trillion or two in Afghanistan. And we’re complaining about $120 million a year?

Everyone is blaming everyone else. Congress blames other parts of the Congress and the White House. The White House blames Congress. The White House could find the money if it wanted. It doesn’t. 

There was, in fact, an “Asia tsar” at the White House National Security Council, Kurt Campbell, who should have made passage of the COFAs his mission. He was the tsar, after all. Instead, he bailed out and has failed upwards –  just confirmed as assistant secretary of state. That’s par for the course in Washington.

Congress could find the money too, if it wanted. It doesn’t – or it’s distracted by “the border,” Ukraine, Gaza and any number of other things.

Maybe the Department of Defense (DOD) – which has to do the hard work of defending the Asia-Pacific – could show some initiative and imagination and offer to redirect the money from elsewhere in its large budget.

Just $120 million a year? That’s easy. Cut diversity, equity and inclusion programs in DOD and anyone connected with them. Cut 10% of FOGOs – that’s “flag officers, general officers.” That would easily get your money – and nobody would notice the flags were missing.

Worse, in spite of widespread bipartisan support, the COFA agreements were in fact opaquely removed from consideration the other day.  No one is sure why, though one rumor is it was by a ‘budget conscious’ Senator, even though the bill it was in wouldn’t even have required an offset.  Now a large group of other Senators, led by Senator Risch and Senator Hirono, are fighting against the clock and to try to convince their leadership to put it back in.

Lose the Central Pacific and we’ll be defending from Hawaii and SoCal while all the countries that were counting on us – Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Philippines, Australia and others – start to hedge their bets.

Map: Congressional Reference Service

China will love it. The PRC already has strong commercial and political presence in the COFA states (and just about every other Pacific island nation) and is aiming to pry them away from the United States. 

And it’s succeeding. Among the common approaches are financial payments, economic aid, bribes to officials, facilitating the entry of Chinese organized crime and even encouraging secession movements to weaken recalcitrant federal governments.

The president of each COFA nation is said to have a blank check from China on the desk. The checks haven’t been cashed – such is their deep attachment to the United States. But their patience is not unlimited, and when their erstwhile friend is giving them short shrift, they notice it. Indeed, they are darn angry – although they won’t show it.

Imagine you’re president of a Pacific island state and you’ve spent much of your term negotiating a deal with the United States that you and Washington finally signed. Then, you have to tell your citizens, months later, that Congress’s leadership cares so little it stripped it out of a bill without debate and we aren’t sure if it will ever be put to a vote. So we don’t have money for the post offices, schools, pensions or medicine – and taxes are going to have to go up. 

And, meanwhile, China is offering to solve all your problems.

This is serious. The price of not renewing the COFAs – and not continuing to do the necessary to maintain our ties with these nations – will be paid by many dead American service personnel.  

One wishes the commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral John Aquilino, would put his “stars on the table” and resign over this clown show.

Will he? Of course not. That sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore. The current crowd is not the same as Nimitz, Halsey, and Spruance.

And speaking of our friends in the Asia-Pacific, perhaps Japan might step in and offer to pay? It wouldn’t be the first time Japan Inc got out its checkbook when it saw its interests at risk.  

Island chain strategy. Map: ResearchGate

It pays close to $2 billion a year to support the American military presence in Japan, on which the nation’s security depends.

And as the US financial system was imploding in 2008, a major Japanese bank – presumably at the request of the Japanese government – wrote a $9 billion check to keep Morgan Stanley (and the US financial system) afloat.

An even better deal for Japan would be $120 million a year for 20 years ($2.3 billion total).

If the US government can’t get this done, maybe Tokyo will help. Otherwise, we deserve to lose.

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and former US diplomat. He is the author of the book When China Attacks: A Warning To America.

This article was first published by JAPAN Forward and is republished with permission.