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American and Chinese ships and planes are more frequently encountering each other in the western Pacific Ocean, according to General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff during a recent visit to Indonesia. “The message is the Chinese military, in the air and at sea, have become significantly more and noticeably more aggressive in this particular region,” Milley told the Associated Press.

A potential clash between the US and China in the Pacific usually focuses on Taiwan, as Defense News wrote. But the thousands of islands spread across the Pacific have especially become an arena for this great power conflict.

As the Brookings Institute explained, islands like Kiribati, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu have been strategically important in the modern era. In World War II, for example, they became the sites of important battles between American and Japanese fleets that needed islands to establish bases for fuel, supplies and repairs.

Today, the countries in these archipelagos, meanwhile, are in dire need of economic assistance, especially after the pandemic and inflation have hurt growth. As a result, the US and China have stepped up their efforts to engage and forge alliances with their leaders.

For example, the US recently opened new embassies in Kiribati and Tonga in what the Guardian said was a bid to push back against China’s expanding influence in the Pacific. Boosting aid to the region was part of that decision, incidentally. That effort fit perfectly with the Partners in the Blue Pacific coalition that the US has launched with allies in the region.

China is pursuing a similar strategy, recently launching a diplomatic blitz to counter US efforts, Bloomberg reported. In early July, for example, Foreign Minister Wang Yi solidified a $5.2 billion rail project in Thailand. He also spoke about a new “golden age” of Sino-Filipino relations under the newly elected president of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. And in Myanmar, he met with military leaders who had ousted the country’s civilian government in a coup last year.

Such efforts have made China extremely influential in the Pacific, the New York Times concluded in an analysis.

In this environment, winning and losing are not so clear. Earlier this year, for example, news broke that China’s leaders were negotiating a secret agreement with the Solomon Islands that would allow Chinese warships to visit the country. Australia and the US dispatched officials to try to scuttle the deal, but the Solomon Islands signed it. However, as the Rand Corporation argued in a blog post, the sneakiness of China’s approach tarnished its image somewhat among locals.

China might not be the big winner here. But the US, as the incumbent hegemon in the region for more than 50 years, clearly has the most to lose.

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