11.17.2014 0

Obama cedes South Pacific to China


By Neil Mellen

In the fall of 1919, the tiny but pivotal Pacific Island of Yap was headline news, appearing on the front page of the New York Times.

Americans understood Yap to be the strategic crossroads of the Pacific. A friendly and functional Yap was — and remains — essential for maintaining U.S. communication and maritime access to the Pacific Rim. Yap would be a defining chokepoint if hostilities were to ever breakout out in Asia.

Scores of stories and editorials reminded the war-weary public that Yap, and its adjacent coral atolls, were situated a mere 400 miles south of our fleet’s Naval Bases at Guam. The Japanese had quietly slipped into German’s Pacific Colonies early in the Great War. Joining World War One as an Allied Power, the audacious Japanese were able to secure from the Germans the foundation for an Empire that would someday span across the Pacific. They took Yap, and the rest of Micronesia virtually without incident in 1914. Secret treaties were negotiated with the stunned British, Russians and French to ensure they would keep the islands after the Armistice.

By the fall of 1919, President Wilson and Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Lodge were locked in a bitter battle over the Treaty of Versailles and America’s possible entrance into the League of Nations. The doughboys were trickling home and the United States was on the cusp of 18 months of deflation and recession. Still, keeping Yap out of the Japanese Sphere of Influence was a unanimous and consistent priority for American politicians, military leaders, and businessmen. It was virtually the only foreign policy tenant on which the Executive and Congress could agree.

Despite America’s best efforts at the international bargaining table, the Allied Powers provided Japan with control of Micronesia under the guise of a League of Nation’s Mandate. The dispute over Yap dragged on to 1922 but was ultimately won by the Japanese. In the name of economic and political development, the islands were closed off, exploited for their limited natural resources, and ultimately, militarized.  When bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, Americans looked westward and saw, many of them for the first time in two decades, a mass of Japanese outposts stretching between them and the enemy’s homeland.

Yap and the rest of Micronesia were liberated from the Co-Prosperity Sphere one bloody island at a time. American officials and Pentagon planners vowed never again.  The region was administered by the United States Department of the Interior as a United Nations authorized Trust Territory until the early 1980s. Since that time Yap and the three other members of the highly federalized Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) have maintained close ties with the West. A Compact of Free Association allows for easy travel, common defense, and islander access to many domestic U.S. benefits. Hundreds of millions in government-to-government aid dollars have flowed to the Islands.

The “investment” has born little fruit. The aid payments, still micromanaged by Interior, have failed to spur economic development and fostered resentment within this long time US ally.  Auditors at the GAO have issued dozens of reports detailing the fiasco, noting that within the present trajectory the “FSM has limited prospects for achieving budgetary self-reliance and long-term economic advancement.” The Chinese are aggressively exploiting that fact, and accompanying islander fears that US assistance is set to expire in 2024.

Over the last four years, pro-Western political and civil leaders on Yap were able to slow, but not stop, the most caustic and transparently strategic Chinese plans to date. A massive casino and golf resort with an accompanying expansion and Sino control of Yap’s air and seaport. A direct deal with Yap’s State Government was sidelined for a time thanks to church leaders, village womens’ groups and an outspoken Legislative Speaker, Henry Falan. Accusations of Chinese funded corruption remained rampant, as the public prepared for a November 2014 election that became a referendum on the “Chinese Alternative”. All the while the US Department of Interior actually tightened its rigid control over domestic state and national budgets in Micronesia, flaming the fires of resentment and speculation. Calls to reform and refocus US engagement were dismissed out of hand.

Foreign money, populist anti-western rhetoric, a last minute third party spoiler, and ballot box irregularities handed the Chinese backed candidate a narrow plurality. A constitutional amendment that would have criminalized casino gambling failed. China’s controversial track record of caustic “development” in Africa offers a hint at the social, political and environmental malfeasance the Yapese have invited.

The Chinese describe their interests in Yap, and throughout the Pacific, as primarily economic, gradual, and intended to avoid provocation. In practice the advances work to realize a sphere of influence and an area of denial across concentric chains of islands radiating from their own shores. That playbook is well-known, having been first drafted by Japanese Prime Minister Yamagata Aritomo in December of 1890, twenty-five years before the first Yap Controversy. In 1919 a liberal Democrat President put aside differences with Senate Republicans, trying to advance American and Native interests on Yap. Today, we are left to suppose the President would merely defend the shortcomings of his Interior Department, assuming he knew of its catastrophic failures in Yap at all.

The author was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Yap, authored a Ulithian-English Dictionary, and founded “Habele,” a U.S. based nonprofit serving students across Micronesia through privately funded scholarships and donations.

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