By: Jonathan Levin  | 

The Pacific Nation Key to China’s Taiwan Plans

In March 2023, then-President of the Federated States of Micronesia, David Panuelo, sent a letter to the FSM’s Congress. The contents of the letter, which were soon leaked to the press, were damning, outlining years of efforts by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to interfere in the country’s affairs and move away from the United States towards Beijing.

“We are witnessing political warfare in our country,” said Panuelo, detailing years of Chinese interference in the country, including high-level pressure campaigns, bribery and investment in critical infrastructure. “Over the course of my administration, the scope has increased, as has the depth, as has the gravity,” he noted.

What Panuelo, who was once viewed as a pro-Beijing leader, said, confirms what American policy analysts have been saying for years: China has been increasing its stake in the Pacific as part of its ever-increasing rivalry with the United States, and Micronesia, a key U.S. ally, is a casualty of China’s ambitions.

Once content with “biding its time,” Chinese policy under Xi Jinping has expanded far beyond China’s borders, including towards Micronesia, once viewed as on China’s “periphery.” In public, China acts like a benefactor and friend of the nation, pouring millions into the impoverished country, including funding projects that could give China control over critical infrastructure, including some with strategic implications. In public, Chinese officials tell the people of the FSM (through the country’s sole paper) that China is an “old friend” and that PRC aid is focused on “coaching one to fish rather than giving one fish.”

However, in private, China acts less kindly. Chinese ships, in the guise of research, gather intelligence in FSM waters. Chinese officials hand envelopes filled with cash and secret smartphones to Micronesian officials. Secession movements receive Chinese support. Micronesian officials are pressured to take pro-Beijing actions, and Chinese diplomats try to tell lower-ranking FSM officials to bypass their higher-ups.

Much of this was not known until Panuelo spoke up. Micronesia, for reasons rooted in its cultural tradition, likes to practice what is called a “tradition of darkness,” or tiahk en rotorot. This, along with decades of U.S. indifference to the nation, has allowed China to make inroads into the nation.

Micronesia is an attractive target for China. Spread out across hundreds of islands in the North-West Pacific, it controls a territory the size of the continental U.S.. Treaties with the FSM guarantee the nation’s security and allow the United States to move troops throughout the nation, which are key to the U.S. national security, and according to one expert, provide the U.S. a “power-projection superhighway running through the heart of the North Pacific into Asia.”

China is committed to changing that. If China is to achieve “reunification” with Taiwan, which it seeks to complete by 2049, it knows it will likely need to deal with the United States. Chinese interference in the FSM is key to China’s strategy to prevent the U.S. from interfering. 

“The FSM has a key role to play in either the prevention of such a conflict or participation in allowing it to occur,” said Panuelo.

China’s campaign of political warfare in the FSM has been enabled by the United States taking its relationship with the FSM for granted and ignoring the country. For decades, policymakers have ignored the country, along with the rest of the Pacific. U.S. aid – which outnumbers Chinese contributions nearly 6-1, has not built the FSM into a strong, self-sufficient country. Islands remain isolated, and many have been depopulated by U.S.-bound immigrants looking for better economic opportunities. The FSM’s most populous state, Chuuk, has lost nearly 1/3 of its population to outward immigration, and many other Micronesians bear resentment of the decades of nuclear testing in the region.

Belatedly, realizing that they have been late to the game, policymakers have begun to pay more attention to the FSM. The Biden administration has begun holding high-level meetings in Washington with Pacific Islands leaders, including that of the FSM. Congress members have taken trips to the Pacific for briefings, and overall, the U.S. has begun to pay more attention to the region. The recent renewal of the Compact of Free Association (COFA) with the FSM has been touted as a major win for the U.S., even though it took Congress half a year to renew the agreement, giving China room to exploit gridlock and putting U.S. security interests in Asia at risk.

The United States’ recent steps towards increasing engagement with the FSM is a tremendous step forward towards improving our relationship with a key allied nation. But it's not enough. To combat PRC inroads in the country, developments so critical to PRC aspirations in Taiwan, the United States needs a sea change in our approach to the strategically located nation. We need to have difficult conversations with our Micronesian partners who think they can play off great power competition for their own benefit, and we need to focus, as the Chinese claim they are, to “coach” the Micronesian people to fish, instead of continuing to pour hundreds of millions into the country without prioritizing the growth of the Micronesian economy. As tensions continue to rise in the Indo-Pacific, we must invest in building up the FSM and making it stronger.


Photo Caption: Secretary of State Anthony Blinken speaking to the press together with (left to right) Marshall Islands Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Jack Ading, Palua President Surangel Whipps, Jr., and Federated States of Micronesia President Wedley Simina, ahead of a meeting at the State Department in Washington in September.

Photo Credit: Chuck Kennedy / U.S. Department of State