- - Sunday, September 22, 2019

Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific is hardly a new development.

But what was once confined to the construction of artificial islands in the hotly contested waters of the South China Sea near the Philippines has expanded into new fronts as China eyes Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, where America’s day begins. Even American Samoa is faced with challenges.

In addition to the long-ignored U.S. territories, there are three island-republics — the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau — that have relied upon the grace and favor of the United States since the postwar years. The relationship between these freely associated states and Washington is governed through an instrument called the Compact of Free Association.

Together, the territories and island-republics are geographically situated between Hawaii and the Philippines — itself a former U.S. territory that should have been admitted to the Union — in a vast swath of the Indo-Pacific informally called the American Lake. The nickname reflects what was an exclusive U.S. sphere of influence. Until the rise of China, the only other power exercising postwar clout here was Australia, which is also struggling to confront Chinese influence.

The receding of the American Lake became most evident during the final years of President Obama’s administration.

Despite its so-called Pivot to Asia, the Obama administration did little to assert itself on these islands. I discovered this reality during the 2016 presidential campaign, when I island-hopped across the territories for Sen. Ted Cruz until jumping ship and endorsing then-candidate Donald Trump.

Mr. Cruz’s campaign acutely recognized not only the geopolitical importance of these islands, but their overlooked power in intra-party politics. Not only do American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Marianas have elected governors, legislatures and even delegates to Congress, but each also has a Republican Party that sends a full delegation to the national convention. Those delegates become critical in a competitive race for the Republican nomination, as was the case in 2016.

China’s inroads have been helped by the War on Terror, which has occupied Washington’s attention for the past 18 years.

Beijing’s targets in the Indo-Pacific and closer to home in the Caribbean and Latin America generally share the same characteristics: Poor when compared to the GDP of the 50 states, underdeveloped and generally forgotten. All sorts of basic infrastructure and other improvements are built or promised. Think hospitals, schools, highways, ports and airports. Some are freebies; others involve loans that will never be repaid. Moreover, as independent countries they have full voting privileges at the United Nations. This in and of itself is worth every yuan.

The Solomon Islands, one of Queen Elizabeth II’s “other realms and territories,” became the most recent example. It ended diplomatic recognition of Taiwan after China promised $500 million in funding. Closer to home, Panama with the strategically important Panama Canal — another former U.S. territory — and the Dominican Republic, which voted for U.S. annexation in 1869 during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, have also aligned with Beijing.

In addition to tariffs against China the president has also dispatched senior administration officials, including cabinet secretaries, and military leaders to the territories and elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific. Mr. Trump even hosted a historic White House summit with heads of state from the island-republics.

The administration rightly understands that U.S. hegemony is at stake, if the flag isn’t flown over the American Lake. But merely flying the flag or even levying tariffs isn’t enough. Washington must up its game.

It should start with a revival of the Monroe Doctrine. There also needs to be a re-examining of the relationship with the islands and their individual political status or lack thereof. This should include statehood.

Just look at the secretary of Interior, who oversees four of the five territories and all three island-republics albeit without viceregal powers over local affairs. (Puerto Rico is treated as a state by the federal government.)

Ryan Zinke, President Trump’s former Interior secretary, visited each territory within the administration’s first year. Not only was that a remarkable feat given the significant travel distances, but it could be a new record since it took eight years for his predecessor in the Obama administration to do the same. Just recently, Assistant Secretary of Interior Doug Domenech flew halfway across the world to pay homage to island leaders and pass out Uncle Sam’s money, including over $9 million for “improvements” in Palau.

The islands should be the bailiwick of a standalone agency with cabinet rank. The natural choice to head such an agency is former two-term Republican Gov. Eddie Calvo of Guam.

Simply put, it is an affront to Americans in American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Marianas and the Virgin Islands that the department best known for national parks and wild horses is responsible for their affairs. Congress is also to blame, as the House of Representatives and Senate both relegate oversight of the territories to obscure subcommittees.

Not only does the institutionalized benign neglect only cement the second-class status of the territories, but it pushes the island-republics closer to China.

A good example: The children of illegal immigrants born in any of the 50 states have more rights than Americans born or living in the territories. The second-class status of Americans in the territories was repudiated by the Republican National Committee, which supports the full and equal citizenship of all Americans. However, neither the White House nor a Republican in Congress have taken this up.

Then there is the question of the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau.

They should be given the option of becoming either territories or joining Guam and the Northern Marianas to form the 51st state. This idea was made recently by Richard Carroll in the International Policy Digest, though he wrongly advocated statehood for the island-republics ahead of existing territories.

Beyond equal citizenship and political equality, the overarching need for a revived Monroe Doctrine in the Indo-Pacific, Caribbean and Latin America cannot be said enough. Without it, China will supplant the United States.  

• Dennis Lennox is a political commentator and public affairs consultant. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.

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