China tests U.S. in Pacific

This story by Axios’ Dave Lawler is part of a series supported by the Pulitzer Center.

POHNPEI, Federated States of Micronesia — Beijing is persistently courting one of America’s closest partners in the Pacific — giving Micronesia the benefit of two superpower benefactors, but prompting fears among local leaders that the island nation could be caught in a superpower brawl.

  • Why it matters:As U.S.-China competition grows and tensions intensify over Taiwan, China is pulling new partners into its Pacific orbit. Beijing’s focus on a country with deep ties to the U.S. comes as Washington urgently seeks to upgrade its military footprint in the region and remain the preeminent power.

The U.S. controls Micronesia’s vast expanse of ocean, and funds much of the country’s budget. Micronesians attend U.S.-built schools, use U.S. dollars and serve in the U.S. military at a higher rate than any U.S. state.

  • But allegations earlier this year by then-President David Panuelo that the Chinese government was engaging in “political warfare” put the unlikeliest of countries in the international spotlight and posed deeper questions about the durability of U.S. power in the Pacific.

 Axios traveled to Micronesia and interviewed the country’s four current and previous leaders — including President Wesley Simina, marking his first interview with an international reporter since taking office.

  • They described how China has long been courting Micronesia’s political elite — from providing small gifts like cellphones and envelopes of cash to constructing state government buildings and residences for the president and other top officials.

Beijing has built roads, schools and government offices.

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