Oceania | Diplomacy | Security

The Myth of ‘Spheres of Influence’ in the Pacific Region

How a faulty geographical mindset is leading policymakers astray in the region.

The Myth of ‘Spheres of Influence’ in the Pacific Region

A map of East Asia and the Pacific with the so-called first island chain drawn in red.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan it is not surprising that the United States and allied governments are recentering their foreign policy and military strategies on the Pacific region and the rivalry with China. What is surprising, however, is how many of the current plans and discussions about the Pacific region are based on outdated conceptualizations of how political, economic, and military influence actually work in this oceanic realm. Based on a number of commentaries, articles, and reports, one would think that there is actually a definitive line across the Pacific Ocean that serves as a hard border between Chinese influence on one side, and the U.S. and its allies on the other. 

Lyle Goldstein, director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College, was particularly explicit about this mindset when he said of the Micronesian islands of the Western Pacific, “It is around these islands that the line of spheres of influence between the [U.S. and China] are being drawn… The question is where does the line switch?” 

Why Do We Look for a Line Across the Pacific?

Dividing the world into mutually exclusive “spheres of influence” has deep philosophical roots in military and political strategy, and it still maintains a seductive hold over analysts, planners, and policymakers today. I myself have been guilty of this conceptualization of the Pacific when I characterized the region in my first book as an “edge” or border between competing global empires.

The application of this worldview to the Pacific is inspired in part by the view of the north-south running island groups in the region as being akin to ”defensive chains.” This view was popularized by Douglas MacArthur in the wake of World War II. MacArthur’s view of securing U.S. and allied interests in the Pacific by militarizing the “first island chain” (anchored by the Philippines, Taiwan, Okinawa, and mainland Japan) and holding military and political sway over the sea lines of communication through control of the “second island chain” (Guam, Yap, Saipan, Palau, and the Bonin Islands) was centered on stopping Chinese or Soviet island-hopping amphibious invasions, which were the main potential threat posed in the late 1940s. 

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The world today, however, is of course a very different place. Military, political, economic, and social influences crisscross the world in ways that make the continuance of spatially contiguous and mutually exclusive spheres of influence nearly impossible to maintain in practice. Instead, most places in the world are interconnected into globe-spanning webs of interaction, investment, and influence with multiple states. The islands of the Pacific are certainly no exception

The widespread geographical mindset that the Pacific is a realm with a hard border dividing Western from Asian powers may be fundamentally flawed, but it has a tenacious grip on the minds of many planners and commentators on all sides of the region. From this mindset, any project with a whiff of Chinese influence on the “wrong side” of the line is framed as an invasion, a plot, or an erosion of U.S. or allied control that must be countered. Any development project not connected to U.S. or allied power is suspect. A wharf in Vanuatu constructed by a Chinese company gets reported in Australian papers as a potential People’s Liberation Army (PLA) naval base. A tourism development in Yap (Micronesia) is portrayed as a kind of Trojan horse for the PLA to establish itself on the second island chain. A civilian airport subsidized by Chinese development funds on Canton Island in Kiribati becomes fodder for an article with the bold (and remarkably misleading) subtitle that claimed “China is building military bases all over the Pacific.”

The irony is that the island Pacific is hardly the only place in the world where Chinese investment, trade, technical expertise, or tourist spending occurs. Countries all over the globe take advantage of these. While Chinese foreign direct investment has dropped in both the U.S. and Australia over the past several years due to diplomatic tensions and COVID-related disruptions, it still measures in the billions of U.S. dollars in both countries. It begs the questions as to why major Western powers can do business with Chinese firms, but they consider it a security threat when Fiji, the Federated States of Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, or the Solomons do it.

The problem in the eyes of many Western analysts is that these Chinese projects and influences are occurring on the “wrong side” of an imaginary line in the Pacific. They are happening in an area that they deem to be a special strategic space whose primary purpose is to be a part of an “American Lake” and whose value is defined largely by the islands’ ability to be potential sites for Western military power projection, sites for training with and testing a variety of weapons, and sites that serve as a “buffer” against the influence of other powers. In other words, analysts from powers around the rim of the Pacific view the islands in it through the lens of why they are important to the security of their own countries, rather than the security of island residents themselves. 

A Different Approach

The problem with this traditional approach to security in the Pacific is that millions of people live in the islands and they have their own concerns about their economic and environmental security. They are also keen to define their own webs of international relationships and interdependencies. It is a mistake for Western governments and analysts to dismiss the importance of the resources Pacific communities can gain from engaging multiple international partners. To insist that Pacific jurisdictions lean only on traditional security partners, just so the islands can function as solid bulwarks of “strategic denial” to protect someone else’s faraway mainland population, may not be as attractive to Pacific residents and governments as Western strategists hope. Promising to strengthen what have been essentially dependent colonial relationships, and making the argument that Pacific jurisdictions should relinquish even more formal sovereignty to Western powers so that these powers can “save” islanders from someone else’s (ostensibly worse) colonialism, takes Pacific security in an unproductive direction.

Instead, U.S. and allied powers can chart a different foreign policy course in the Pacific. It is possible to create diplomatic, economic, and environmental policies that can address both the human security concerns of island residents as well as restrain Chinese ambitions and mega-projects that could genuinely create trouble and disruption in the region. What is needed, however, is a different approach, which recognizes that there is not a line drawn across the Pacific that dissects the region into “ours” and “theirs.” 

What if Western diplomats and strategists instead took the position that having a Pacific full of sovereign islands that are connected to each other and multiple partners around the globe – and which are empowered to address their own environmental, human, and military challenges – enhances the security of not only islanders, but the multiple nervous powers on every side of the Pacific as well? 

Governments in the U.S., China, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, and Europe could all have major roles in creating this kind of security environment in the Pacific. There needs to be, however, much less furor every time an island leader refuses to confine their development options to offers from their former colonial power. There also needs to be the mindset that new military base construction, nuclear submarine deals, and the hardening of the region into competing trade blocs does not actually make the Pacific more secure. A step toward this is the recognition that there is not, nor should there be, a line between an American and Chinese Pacific.