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Board games: US expects Chinese ‘strategic surprises’ in Pacific

Washington: The Pacific may well be the part of the world most likely to see a “strategic surprise”, the US Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell said, in comments apparently referring to possible Chinese ambitions to establish island bases in the region.

Campbell told Washington’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies on Monday (Tuesday AEDT) the United States has “enormous moral, strategic, historical interests” in the Pacific, but had not done enough to assist the region, unlike countries such as Australia and New Zealand.

Kurt Campbell says America needs to step up its game in helping Australia in the Indo-Pacific. Credit:Andrew Taylor

“If you look and if you ask me, where are the places where we are most likely to see certain kinds of strategic surprise – basing or certain kinds of agreements or arrangements, it may well be in the Pacific,” he told an Australia-focused panel.

Campbell called it the issue he was “most concerned about over the next year or two”, adding: “And we have a very short amount of time, working with partners like Australia, like New Zealand, like Japan, like France, who have an interest in the Pacific, to step up our game across the board”.

Campbell did not elaborate on his basing reference, but MPs from the Pacific island republic of Kiribati told Reuters last year that China has drawn up plans to upgrade an airstrip and bridge on one its remote islands about 3000 kilometres south-west of the US state of Hawaii.

Construction on the tiny island of Kanton would offer China a foothold deep in territory that had been firmly aligned to the US and its allies since World War II.

Kiribati said in May the China-backed plans were a non-military project designed to improve transport links and bolster tourism.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, left, and Kiribati’s President Taneti Maamau shake hands during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing a year ago.Credit:AP

Campbell said the US and its allies needed to do more in the Pacific included in countering COVID-19, over the issue of fishing, and in investment in clean energy.

He followed up on remarks he made last week that Washington needed to “step up its game” on economic engagement in Asia.

He said Australia had privately urged the US to understand that as part of its strategic approach, it needed “a comprehensive, engaged, optimistic, commercial and trade role”.

Campbell has touted the so-called AUKUS pact, under which the US and Britain have agreed to help Australia acquire nuclear submarines – as well as “Quad” summits between the US, Australia, India and Japan – as evidence that US partnerships were causing China “heartburn”.

Much of the Kiribati archipelago is not more than a few metres above sea level.Credit:Justin McManus

But some Indo-Pacific countries, many of which count China as their largest trading partner, have lamented what they consider insufficient American economic engagement after former president Donald Trump quit a trade deal now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

US President Joe Biden told Asian leaders in October Washington would launch talks on creating an Indo-Pacific economic framework, but few details have emerged and his administration has avoided moves towards rejoining trade deals critics say threaten US jobs.

Australia’s ambassador to Washington, Arthur Sinodinos, told the CSIS panel the country continued to raise the issue with the US Congress and “we haven’t given up hope” of a reconsideration of US trade policy.


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