China’s Pacific Campaign: Preserving U.S. Interests in the Indo-Pacific

Preserving U.S. Interests in the Indo-Pacific
(Cleo Paskal, July 19, 2023)

Transcript available below

About the speaker

Cleo Paskal is a non-resident senior fellow at FDD focusing on the Indo-Pacific region. Cleo works with academia, government, the defense community and others in order to better understand, explain, anticipate and resolve today’s complex challenges. She is particularly interested in the strategic implications of the intersection of geopolitical, geoeconomic, and geophysical change.

Cleo has briefed government departments of the United States, United Kingdom, the European Union, India and many others. She has lectured at, among many others, the US Army War College, Center for Homeland Defense & Security (Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey), Inter-American Defence Board (D.C.), the Royal College of Defence Studies (UK), the National Defence College (India), Centre for National Security Studies (Canadian Forces College), and the National Defence College (Oman). She participates in closed-door meetings with defense, intelligence, national security, and non-government experts who engage in strategic level, unclassified dialogue and research to better anticipate transnational threats.

Cleo is widely published and a regular media commentator. Her books include the award-winning Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic, and Political Crises Will Redraw the World Map and the best-selling Spielball Erde. Recent academic book chapters and research papers include: “Is New Zealand Creating Global Disruptions” (The Law of the Jungle: How Can New Zealand Navigate Global Disruptions); “India: The Challenge of Reform” (CÉRIUM); “The Modi Phenomenon: Rebooting Indian Foreign Policy” (The Modi Doctrine: New Paradigms in India’s Foreign Policy); and “The ‘Three Geos’” (Geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific). In addition, she has contributed chapters to academic books published by Elgar, Routledge and many others and was the Guest Curator/Editor of the influential East-West Center (D.C.) series Oceania in 2018.

In the popular media, Cleo has contributed to The Diplomat, The World Today, The Telegraph (UK), The Independent (UK), South China Morning Post, BBC radio, Australian Financial Review, New Zealand Herald, and Times of India, among many others. She is regularly interviewed by US and international media, including the John Batchelor Show. She is currently North America Special Correspondent for the Sunday Guardian (India).



Robert R. Reilly:

Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Robert Reilly, its director. We are very pleased today to welcome to the Westminster Institute for the first time Cleo Paskal, who is a non-resident senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, focusing on the Indo-Pacific region, an area of the world in which she spends a great deal of time. She is particularly interested in the strategic implications of the intersection of geopolitical, geo-economic, and geophysical change.

Cleo has briefed government departments in the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, India, and many others.

She has lectured at, among many others, the US Army War College, Center for Homeland Defense & Security, the Royal College of Defence Studies in the UK, the National Defence College (India), and the Centre for National Security Studies (Canadian Forces College). She participates in closed-door meetings with defense, intelligence, national security, and non-government experts who engage in strategic level, unclassified dialogue and research to better anticipate transnational threats.

Cleo is widely published and a regular media commentator. Her books include the award-winning Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic, and Political Crises Will Redraw the World Map and the best-selling book in German which she co-authored, Spielball Erde. Recent academic book chapters and research papers include: “Is New Zealand Creating Global Disruptions”; “India: The Challenge of Reform”; “The Modi Phenomenon: Rebooting Indian Foreign Policy”; and “The ‘Three Geos’” (Geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific). She was the Guest Curator/Editor of the influential East-West Center (D.C.) series Oceania in 2018.

In the popular media, Cleo has contributed to many distinguished newspapers and journals; The Diplomat, The World Today, The Telegraph (UK), The Independent (UK), South China Morning Post, BBC radio, Australian Financial Review, New Zealand Herald, and the Times of India, among many others. She is currently North America Special Correspondent for the Sunday Guardian.

Today we are going to discuss the topic of: Preserving U.S. Interests in the Indo-Pacific: Examining How U.S. Engagement Counters Chinese Influence in the Region. Now, this title comes from Cleo’s recent, very recent, Congressional testimony with that title, and that will be part of our discussion today as Cleo takes us through the extremely complicated geostrategic, geopolitical, economic situation in the Pacific Islands, which, as she reminds us in this brilliant testimony, played such a significant role in Imperial Japan’s Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, which is something that the PRC may wish to duplicate today despite the U.S. presence in the region. But that is for Cleo to say, and not for me. Welcome to the program.

Cleo Paskal:

Thank you. This is an enormous pleasure and honor. This is sort of where the grown-ups come, so I am very honored.

Robert R. Reilly:

You qualify.

Cleo Paskal:

Well, I have some family members who would dispute that, but I am here anyway, and I am very happy to be here, thank you.

Robert R. Reilly:

And you came bearing gifts, Cleo. You brought me ginger snap cookies from Saipan, which my children will greatly appreciate. Thank you.

Cleo Paskal:

They are from the United States of America because Saipan is part of the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, which is the United States of America. It would arguably be kind of the most northwestern bit of the U.S., and it just a reminder of how much the U.S. is in the Pacific. And ginger snap cookies are good.

The Strategic Situation

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, take us through the strategic situation. You brought with you a number of maps that help make clear what the configurations are and how they are affiliated.

Cleo Paskal:

Thank you, yes, it is an area that many people kind of know bits and pieces about, but it is very helpful to see the map, especially the strategic map as it builds up. I did bring a bunch of maps, and they are going to layer, so we will talk about them layer by layer.

In the first layer in this first map is where is the U.S. is in the Pacific, so everything that you see here in this dark blue color is actual United States of America. So it starts at Hawaii, but then as you go west from Hawaii, you can see Baker, Johnson, and all those little atolls. A little bit further south, you see American Samoa. Then you go across and you see Guam, which has been part of America since the Spanish-American war, and then just above that you see that Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, which includes Saipan.

And these are places that send delegates to Congress; well, American Samoa, CNMI, and Guam do. You know [the people of] CNMI and Guam are American citizens. This is American territory, so they are the front line of America’s strategic contest with anybody coming off of Asia who wants to push the U.S. back to Hawaii.


So when you go to Saipan, for example, Saipan was colonized by a whole range of people. The Germans lost them at the end of World War I, and that whole region, including CNMI, was given over to the Japanese under the League of Nations under the South Seas mandate. And then at terrible cost to the U.S. military, they were liberated by the Marines in 1944, and then voted to become part of the United States.

I spoke to a woman in her 90s. I was there recently. She went to Japanese school. I mean she learned Japanese at Japanese school as a child, and then when the Americans invaded, she hid in a cave with her family for three weeks. And then the Marines came. She remembers very vividly the two Marines that brought her out of the cave, gave her water to drink, brought her to safety. And then she had to learn English, okay, and became a nun. And then she went to Kansas City, Missouri where they had a Convent for people from the Marianas who were part of this, the Mercedarians, and she became a schoolteacher in Kansas City, Missouri in the public school system to thank the Marines for having liberated her country.

So the depth of the connections of the individual people in those countries to the United States cannot be underestimated. That is the first thing to understand. They very much feel that they are Americans and that they have lived through war before. They have lived through civilizational conflict like it is very difficult to imagine, and they are very worried about what is coming.

Robert R. Reilly:

So they have passed it on? I mean, those who were there in World War II are getting fewer and fewer every year, but it is passed down to the younger generation so that sense that you just described is not lost?

Cleo Paskal:

The families are very tight. These societies are very much about families, and not only that. You see the remnants of the war all over the place. The cemeteries are there, the memorials are there. Tinian, which is just to the south of Saipan, was during World War II the biggest airfield, airport in the world, the busiest.

The B-29s were taking off consistently. That is where the Enola Gay took off from. And when you go to Tinian today, two-thirds of the island is leased to the U.S. military. They are in the process of putting in a divert airfield in case there is a problem with Guam. But when you walk through it, you see the old Japanese structures, the airfield they put in, the buildings they put in. But the actual island of Tinian, which is shaped a little bit like Manhattan, when the Seabees showed up, they said oh look, it looks like Manhattan, and so they named the streets all after the streets of New York, so there is a Broadway, there is a Central Park, and there is a Harlem on Tinian. There is no escaping the war and the relationship with the U.S. anywhere in that area.

Pushing the U.S. Out

Robert R. Reilly:

Just to go back for a second, Cleo, you mentioned earlier the idea of driving the United States back to Hawaii. In your testimony, you mentioned a general, Admiral Keating. Could you just [address his comments]?

Cleo Paskal:

In 2008, Admiral Keating testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that a senior Chinese officer had suggested to him, jokingly or not (I do not think it was), that as China developed its naval capacity, the U.S. take Hawaii east, and China will take Hawaii west, and you know, do not worry about it, we will keep an eye on it for you.

And as you brought up, this Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere is very much like the sort of proposal Wang Yi, who was the Foreign Minister of China at the time, was shopping around the Pacific Islands in May-June of 2022. And we will get to that later, but it is very much about pushing the U.S. out and then making Hawaii as un-operational as possible, so essentially pushing it back to the west coast. And they do it in a range of ways.

Chinese Active Measures

So when you look at a place like Saipan or CNMI, the Commonwealth of Northern Marianas, you will find there is information about Chinese funding environmental groups in order to dissuade the U.S. military from setting up training facilities.

Now, there are very legitimate reasons why you would be concerned about having two-thirds of your island leased to the U.S., but what China is very good at doing is finding legitimate concerns, inflaming those concerns, and then giving you the wrong solution. So you are concerned about environmental damage, which might be legitimate, then you say your entire island is going to be destroyed, so you inflame it, and then you say the answer is you get rid of all U.S. military. That is kind of the general pathway.

So we see that that political warfare operation already on the ground, but in the case of CNMI, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, of which Saipan is the biggest island, when they joined the U.S. because their economy was completely different, they had a couple of concessions. One was over labor laws, so they did not want U.S. minimum wage to apply because they were a developing nation.

The other was immigration, and the byproduct of that is still today in the Commonwealth of Northern Marianas, a Chinese [national] can arrive in the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas and get a tourist visa on arrival for two weeks, no clearance, no visa application. They just show up and they get a visa. This has allowed a gambling sector to grow up in Saipan, that included a casino that at one point was running billions a year through the casino. This is in the U.S. This is U.S., and the amount of corruption is enormous.

Now, there happens to be a new governor in CNMI at the moment. He came in six months ago and he took a look around, and the money was just gone, and so he has come to Congress and has asked Congress, please, audit me. Send me more FBI agents. Send me a permanent district attorney. Help me clean up, because he knows that that is how the Chinese political warfare operation comes in, distorts the politics, distorts the economics, and ultimately you end up with China in a position that Japan was in 30 years ago where they are controlling all of the levers.

But they are below the response trigger threshold for the U.S., because the U.S. is looking for kinetic [actions], and what is happening is in the political warfare realm. But you are going to find the U.S. increasingly gets locked out.

China’s Whole of Government Approach

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, I notice, Cleo, that you are very conscious of the whole of government approach that the PRC takes in expanding its influence in these islands through political warfare, but that political warfare has many, many aspects to it, and the United States government, in which I served for a total of 25 years (on and off, not continuously), [does not have that same capacity]. It is easy to see our inability to operate a whole of government effort.

I have gone to interagency meetings where everyone involved in going to Iraq is supposed to be on the same page, [but] everyone goes back to their own agency and the head of agency does whatever he wants, so there is no enforcement mechanism in these interagency groups, so we are not good at whole of government. There are good things about that, but when you are up against a competitor like the PRC, there are very bad things, [too].

If I could just mention very quickly since you have talked about the Chinese Foreign Minister going on his tour, I have here a fact sheet from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs PRC, Cooperation Between China and Pacific Island Countries.

Now, for anyone who does not get that this is whole of government, it is very easy to see by reading this. What do we have? Section one, Political Security, Regional Affairs, then the subset, Security, Regional Affairs, Trade and Investment, Development Cooperation, Cooperation by COVID Response and Public Health, Cooperation in Ocean Affairs, Disaster Prevention Mitigation, Climate Change, Agricultural and Fishery Development Cooperation, Education (you mentioned Confucius Institutes), Tourism, Culture, Women, Sports, Sub-National Cooperation. Two sides have established 22 pairs of sister provinces/states and cities. That is a lot to pay attention to, and I guess we have not been doing it.

Cleo Paskal:

And unlike in the U.S. where often you will get a press release about these sorts of things, and there is very little follow-up, this is actually a limited view of what is happening. It is backed up by the infrastructure, so in every country that China has a relationship with [that is] in the Pacific, they have a very large embassy with local staff that can speak the language, have unlimited budgets, has no restrictions on intel collection, and have been tracking the key families for a very long time. And back in China, it is backed up by at least half a dozen think tanks that are just devoted to the Pacific Islands. This is the tip of a very big iceberg of focus on the region.

Now, why? The question is why.

The second map shows in darker blue the American possessions, but you also have the three [other countries that are] what are called Freely Associated States: Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands. And I mentioned that after World War I, Japan had this South Seas Mandate, which included the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas and these three countries, so the Empire of Japan, Imperial Japan, had this entire middle Pacific zone as their colonial zone, as per the UN, for 30 years.

So they set up schools. They set up postal services. They set up Palau, which is on the western side [and] was the administrative headquarters for the South Seas Mandate. They set up the ports. They set up the airports. Now, over the years, these developed into dual use structures, and then they developed into full-on military reinforced installations. But this is why the U.S. after Pearl Harbor had to fight its way through those islands island by island.

So these countries across the middle – that is Kwajalein, Truk/Chuuk, Peleliu, Angaur; all of those battles were in those countries that Japan held for 30 years as colonies and then slowly militarized with this goal of keeping the U.S. off from Hawaii east.

And if you go there, like in Saipan, again, you see a lot of Japanese activity as they were militarizing in the late 30s that looks a lot like what the Chinese are doing now. So they would say when they were building up the airport in Saipan, which they were [and] which was for military purposes, they called it a baseball field. They were clearing the ground for a baseball field, right?

And they worked very closely with the Japanese businesses that were on the ground, so there was a sugar growing and refinery installation both there and elsewhere. And the sugar company worked with the Japanese government, like Chinese government companies work with the government, gave it land, and helped it when the Emperor of Japan requested support, to support that war, the development of the war effort. So across that entire middle zone, Japan was in place for 30 years and setting them up like part of Japan.

Now, there was a caste system, effectively, where in the case of Saipan, for example, one of the people from Saipan was explaining to me that it was: first, the Japanese, then the Koreans, then the Okinawans (Koreans and Okinawans came in to work a lot of the Japanese industries), and then the locals, the Chamorros or the other people from the region. And so the Chamorros could only go to school to grade three, but if you were half Japanese – because there was a lot of intermarriage, then you could go to grade six, so that was kind of built into the structure.

But at the same time, the Japanese were selecting people to train for the bureaucracy, and they were settling in, and you could see it in the buildings that have survived across that entire region, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau. After World War II, they reverted to the successor of the League of Nations, to the UN, to the United Nations, and the United Nations handed that entire zone, which is larger than the continental United States, to the U.S. for administration, and that area was called the trust territories. And it was the only strategic trust territory the UN designated.

So those three countries, what are now countries, plus the Commonwealth of Northern Marianas, were administered under this trust territory structure by the United States. The area that is Marshall Islands now was an area where the U.S. conducted 67 nuclear tests between the late ’40s and early ’50s, so Castle Bravo, the Bikini Atoll, that stuff, all happened in the Marshall Islands.

Those countries each have their own story, and they are all very complicated, but the Commonwealth of Northern Marianas decided to join the U.S. The other three countries decided to become countries, go independent, but they signed what is called (each of them their own) Compact of Free Association (COFA) with the United States, so those three countries collectively are known as the Freely Associated States. So whether you call them a Compact State or a Freely Associated State, it means the same thing.

That compact, those agreements, means that those three countries are the closest strategic partners the U.S. has ever had. They give the U.S. essentially unlimited defense and security responsibilities over their land and their waters. The U.S. can say we want to put a base there, and that is it. It also gives the people of the three Freely Associated States the right to live and work in the U.S. and join the U.S. military, and they do. They do at rates that are higher than most U.S. states.

So the current compact negotiator – the compacts are up for renewal now – the current lead negotiator for the Federal States of Micronesia is a retired U.S. Marine Colonel, so the ties are incredibly deep. They were born in the blood of World War II, the incredible sacrifice of both sides during World War II, and they resulted in this, from a strategic perspective, unbelievable access that the U.S. has to go from basically Hawaii to Guam unimpeded. So we always talk about the first island chain, maybe the second island chain, but that presupposes you can get there. You can only get there because of the Freely Associated States.

So what does that mean?

Robert R. Reilly:

The first island chain being the arc between Japan and [the Philippines]?

Cleo Paskal:

Yeah, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines. It is what hems China into the South China Sea area, and [it is] what China is trying to break. They are building the military bases, the islands of the South China Sea that gets them closer to that, to being able to break it. But ultimately, it is why they want Taiwan, so that they can break the chain that constrains them. But Taiwan is not the end. Taiwan is the necessary starting point for the rest of it.

Once you have Taiwan, your security perimeter for Taiwan goes out to those Pacific Islands, and it helps you to project power even more towards Hawaii and down and across. So Taiwan is not the end point. Taiwan is [the beginning].

Robert R. Reilly:

But you are bottled up if you do not have Taiwan?

Cleo Paskal:

But if you do not break the chain, you are bottled up. And the U.S. has been saying we are reinforcing the chain, we are reinforcing the chain, we will keep [reinforcing the chain], but they are not looking at what is behind them. [They are] not looking at what is happening with those Compact States.

Robert R. Reilly:

Just talk about the second chain before we get [to that].

Cleo Paskal:

Yeah, so the second chain comes again because – so [this is a] vague thing, but you have got that first chain, which is sort of Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, and Malaysia. The second is kind of, broadly, Japan, Commonwealth of Northern Marianas, Guam, and then kind of down that way (maybe Palau. It depends on where you put Palau). You have got these sort of reinforcement zones, and the U.S. has substantial troops along [the way], and treaty allies. You have troops in Japan. You have the treaty allies in the Philippines.

If you are looking at that strategic map, you feel like you have got it covered, and in fact, that is the third map. You have got the U.S. states. Then you have those three Compact States that get you across the Central Pacific. Then you have the five treaty allies. You have Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Australia and Thailand. And so if you are looking at that map, and you are sitting in USINDOPACOM, and you are not looking at the sort of things that you just talked about in terms of political warfare, you think you have it covered.

The kinetic warfare map is reassuring. You have got your treaty allies. You have your defense rights. In the case of the Compacts, you have strategic denial. Also, you can say no other militaries can go into Palau, Marshall Islands, or Federated States of Micronesia, so you think you are good. And on top of that, there are four countries in there that recognize Taiwan, so that is the next map.

Overlaid on top is Palau and Marshall Islands, which are two of the compact States [and which] also recognize Taiwan, plus Nauru and Tuvalu. Now, the reason it is important to recognize Taiwan is because we talked about those embassies, what those embassies do in those countries. If you have a Taiwanese Embassy, you do not have this massive Chinese spy base, which is the Chinese Embassy, sitting in your country, ready to run operations with all of its diplomatic pouches, and its budget, and its Intel collection there. You have a Taiwanese Embassy, which is helpful as opposed to a – I mean, it is a forward operating base on a political warfare battlefield for China.

Four of those countries have that. So you have got this map where you have got U.S. territory in Guam [and in the] Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas. You have all the little ones. You have got American Samoa, which is very helpful when the Chinese are trying to get to Central or South America because they have to go through that area, so American Samoa is very important for monitoring that trans-Pacific trade or activity.

And then you have got the Compacts, which go right across the middle, the Freely Associated States, where you can do whatever you want. You have as much access, probably more than you do on the U.S. homeland. Then you have the treaty allies who are sitting there, supposedly with kind of reciprocal defense agreements, and then you have the four countries that recognize Taiwan, adding another layer of defense. So you can sit at USINDOPACOM and think we are good, but then you add in what you just talked about.

This is not the battlefield China is playing on. They are not looking at that kinetic, overt, defense treaties, military bases, access. They are operating in what some people call the gray zone, but I think it is not a particularly accurate term, where they are coming in with the fishing fleet instead of a naval militia, but that fishing fleet is dropping buoys, it is tracking, you know.

They are running the research vessels. Palau said that they have got the Chinese research vessels going up and down their cables. They are buying off politicians. They are signing this sort of agreement. The things that you are talking about in that agreement are those proposals, like education. It is getting into their heads.

Customs and immigration, forensics, medical; these are all things that give you a level of societal control, if that is your inclination. So that is where we get to this last map in this series, which is the countries that were visited by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in May and June of 2022. And if you see where he visited, he completely jumped over the defensive perimeter.

And the reason that it is worth noting, the countries that he visited, is because this was the height of COVID. All of these countries had closed borders, so they had to make a political decision, we are going to waive all of our COVID restrictions to let in Wang Yi and his delegation, and we are going to muzzle our own press, and we are going to have quiet meetings that we do not talk to anybody else about. So it is a proxy indication of the level of political leverage that China had over those countries.

And if you look at the Compact States, two of them recognize Taiwan, so he could not have gone there, but the one in the middle, the Federated States of Micronesia, does recognize China. And they had a president at the time, President Panuelo, who did not allow a visit from Wang Yi. And in fact, he wrote a letter, a public letter. He has written three letters. In this letter he wrote, he said what is being proposed by the Chinese is the most – I cannot remember the exact term he used, but it was sort of the most consequential proposal of our lifetimes.

Robert R. Reilly:

Hey, may I read part of that letter, which you include in your testimony [from] this very courageous man?

Cleo Paskal:


Robert R. Reilly:

He was still the President of the Federated States of Micronesia when he issued the last of them, though unfortunately, he was not re-elected.

Cleo Paskal:

We can talk about that.

Robert R. Reilly:

Okay, but here it is, quote from President Panuelo, “…The single most game changing proposed agreement in the Pacific in any of our lifetimes. I am aware that the bulk of Chinese research vessel activity in the FSM has followed our nation’s fiber optic cable infrastructure just as I am aware that the proposed language in this agreement opens our countries up to having our phone calls and emails intercepted and overheard.”

I am bouncing around in here, “However, of Chinese control over our security space, aside from the impacts on our sovereignty, is that it increases the chances of China getting into conflict with Australia, Japan, the United States, and New Zealand on the day when Beijing decides to invade Taiwan. To be clear, that’s a China long-term goal, to take Taiwan peacefully if possible but through war if necessary.

“One of the reasons that China’s political warfare is successful in so many areas is that we are bribed to be complicit and bribed to be silent. That is a heavy word, but it is an accurate description regardless. What else do you call it when an elected official is given an envelope filled with money after a meal at the PRC Embassy or after an inauguration? What else do you call it when a senior official is discreetly given a smartphone after visiting Beijing? What do you call it when an elected official receives a check for a public project that our national treasury has no record of, and no means of accounting for?”

This is a very frank statement, and he faces the consequences, possible consequences, of having made it. So I close with this quote from President Panuelo, “I am acutely aware that informing you all of this presents risks to my personal safety, the safety of my family, and the safety of the staff I rely on to sort me in this work. I inform you regardless of these risks because the sovereignty of our nation, the prosperity of our nation, and the peace and stability of our nation are more important.”


Cleo Paskal:

There are some real heroes in the Pacific who are fighting hard to preserve their sovereignty. So we talked about what happened 80 years ago in the Pacific in terms of kinetic warfare. They are on the front lines of political warfare, but political warfare underplays the physical risk to the people involved in fighting this battle. It sounds clean, it is not. It is extremely dangerous, and what President Panuelo did [was courageous].

The first quote was directly related to this Wang Yi visit. It was the letter he sent out when Wang Yi visited those countries that are in red on the map, and he wrote three letters in all. I think as soon as he wrote the first letter, he was probably marked, you know, and it is often said that when Wang Yi went through the area, he presented China Pacific islands Vision, which was very much in the terminology of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, including a Five-Year Plan to accomplish that vision.

The media generally reports it as a failure because it was not signed. I do not think that was the intention of presenting it. And he presented it in the middle of the trip on a virtual meeting, like if you are really serious about it, you meet everybody one-on-one, then you have a big meeting at the end. I think what he was doing was finding who is going to be amenable to that sort of an arrangement, and who was going to object. And if they are amenable, you help their political career. And if they object, you try to destroy them. And they caught Panuelo. They caught President Panuelo.

Robert R. Reilly:

Meaning? Meaning he did not win re-election.

Cleo Paskal:

They identified people across the Pacific who were concerned about this sort of an agreement with China, and they also identified the ones who were willing to sign.

Robert R. Reilly:

So the purpose of the trip was an intelligence operation?

Cleo Paskal:

I would argue it was, yeah.

Robert R. Reilly:

I find why your testimony and your other writings on this area, Cleo, are so valuable is reading the CRS [reports], reading the RAND study, reading the Peace Institute study; some of them are very good. They make good points, [but] none of them have said that. You are the one who said this was what was really going on. The other ones just say, well, this was a failure. Not in the terms that you have just presented.

Cleo Paskal:

Yeah, so I can tell you why I think [that]. I am trying to look at it from the point of view of how I have seen China operate in other locations. I am not a Pacific Island expert, I am not even a China expert, but what I look at is Chinese political warfare, and I look at how it is countered. Countries like India are actually very good at countering it. We can talk about that if you want.

And I learned a lot about how the Indians fight the Chinese on the political warfare front because they have had the same problem in their Indian Ocean Islands as we have had in the Pacific Ocean Islands, which is also why you see the Indian security establishment understanding what is going on in the Pacific to the point where Prime Minister Modi in May went to Papua New Guinea, because he is very concerned that the West is not giving the Pacific island leaders what they need to defend themselves from China.

And they have looked at the World War II map, also, and they know that the Japanese got all the way through the Straits to Andaman Islands. They have got the Chinese coming down through the Pacific Ocean into the Indian Ocean, coming down through Pakistan through the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). And they are starting to feel surrounded, so they have realized if the U.S. and Australia, New Zealand, are dropping the ball in the Pacific Islands, they are going to have to get involved.

Robert R. Reilly:

Just to go back to an earlier misstep – misstep is too mild a term to characterize this. Under the Obama Administration, China claims sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea and proceeded with building those airfields in dual use places, and then installing military equipment on them. And there was not much of an objection voiced.

I personally, when I watched this happening, thought this is perhaps the most audacious geopolitical move in my lifetime. I mean, I think you would have to go back to Nazi Germany’s early moves before World War II broke out, and there was no indication of anyone taking this seriously.

Cleo Paskal:

The people in the region took it very seriously, yeah. The Philippines [took seriously] Scarborough Shoals specifically. It was one of the first [things] shaking faith in U.S. positions.

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, I would think that, yeah.

Cleo Paskal:

And it has been really heartbreaking to watch because in the Pacific Islands, the fighting was horrific. I mean, all war is inconceivably awful, but what the men of the United States and allies and people on the ground did, and had to do, in those islands is heartbreaking. I mean, just what it had to do to them as human beings, and how many were lost, and how many never fully recovered.

And you know, it was the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal over the summer. The Solomon Islands is a country that used to recognize Taiwan. In 2019, they switched to China. And just this week, the Prime Minister of Solomon Islands has been in China. And when he landed in China, he said it is good to be home. This is who we are dealing with.

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