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Deals with smaller Pacific rim nations are part of Washington's plan to deflect China

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Deals with smaller Pacific Rim countries are also part of Washington's strategy to deflect China. As WUNC's Jay Price reports, the U.S. is forging these agreements to expand its influence, solidify existing relationships and give the military more footholds.

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LLOYD AUSTIN: We're pleased to announce today that President Marcos has approved four new EDCA locations.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: In Manila last month, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin unveiled a new agreement with the Philippines. It gives the U.S. access to four bases there. That made a big splash. Getting less attention, though, has been a flurry of other dealmaking in the past few weeks with tiny nations scattered across the Pacific. Three preliminary agreements renew and expand long-term deals with the governments of Palau, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia. And in February, the State Department opened a new U.S. embassy in the Solomon Islands. It says it's discussing two more embassies in Tonga and Kiribati and is negotiating a security agreement with yet another island nation, Papua New Guinea. Derek Grossman is a senior defense analyst with RAND Corporation.

DEREK GROSSMAN: So we are definitely in the business now of trying to maintain the edge that we have, influence-wise, in the Pacific Islands vis-a-vis China.

PRICE: Many of these smaller nations are part of what's sometimes referred to in geopolitical circles as the second island chain, a vaguely-defined group that's farther from the Asian mainland and Chinese missile launchers than, say, Taiwan and Japan, but close enough to help the U.S. project power into the region. And that's why...

GREGORIO KILILI CAMACHO SABLAN: We have to be friends with these island nations for that eventuality.

PRICE: Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan represents the Northern Mariana Islands in the U.S. Congress. This second chain isn't really a chain, it's a patchwork that includes the Northern Marianas and another U.S. territory, Guam, where, not coincidentally, in January, the Marine Corps activated its first new base in 70 years. Sablan called the recent diplomatic moves in his region an important deterrent to war. He cites speculation he's seen from think tanks.

SABLAN: Some people in think tanks already are exhibiting with, you know, exhibitions of who's first is going to get destroyed and then who's the second wave and, you know, all of those things, right? We need to strengthen it before we get there.

PRICE: It's unclear how much this will cost. A State Department spokesperson said the U.S. sends Palau, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia, together, more than $300 million a year now under deals called compacts of free association. The State Department declined to say how much it's offering in negotiations to renew the 20-year compacts, but leaders of two of the countries have suggested the payments could increase 75% or more. The three nations are already so closely tied to the U.S., their citizens can live and work here and get benefits like Medicaid.

GROSSMAN: In return, what we get, as the United States, is near-exclusive military access to the freely associated states.

PRICE: Again, defense analyst Derek Grossman.

GROSSMAN: We can set up basing on their territories. We can fly over their territories. We can use their 200-nautical-mile distance off their shores for military purposes. I mean, there are very few limitations.

PRICE: Grossman says, for their part, the island nations have little interest in the maneuvering between the U.S. and China. Instead, they're looking for help with things like bolstering economies damaged by the pandemic and especially dealing with climate change, which they regard as a much larger threat than China.

GROSSMAN: And they've come out saying, we get it. We know that this is about competition against China, but we also need to make sure that our own national interests are preserved.

PRICE: And now they've got a little leverage. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Durham, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDAMAME'S "APRICITY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.