The Time is Now for Oceania

Canton Island sits 1,900 miles southwest of Honolulu amongst the island nation of Kiribati, and is remote and sparsely populated, home to just 41 people.[1]  The nation has signed on to host a controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project, a concern of American national security professionals, to improve Canton Airfield. Kiribati's aim is to increase tourism to Canton Island, an island with no current tourism infrastructure where nearly 50% of the largest strip of land is covered in a runway.[2] Kiribati is directly astride one of the most strategically vital maritime routes in the world.[3]  Kiribati switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing, and two years later China awarded the nation with funding for this infrastructure project.[4] Canton’s impending airstrip illustrates a trend in the region: ten countries have signed on to the BRI,[5]  at least 117 Chinese-funded projects are ongoing or have been completed,[6] and China is now third in aid donations in the region.[7]

Chinese presence in the Oceania region is robust, and the United States has seemingly surrendered influence among potential allies and partners through a mixture of complacency and inaction. The U.S. has the ability and resources to counter the trend but has thus far neglected to do so with the full arsenal at its disposal. The Department of Defense is not typically the nation’s international diplomacy leader, but possesses the mission-specific capabilities to exert influence in the region. By leveraging Department of Defense assets, specifically those within the Army Reserve, the United States Joint Force Command can lead in implementing emerging policies including partnerships, climate resiliency, democratic values, freedom of the press, and gender equality.[8] 

Matt Holbrook
November 29, 2023

Why the U.S. Must Act

Like the Canton Airport project, Falelolo International Airport in Samoa was refurbished with Chinese grants in 2019, costing approximately 340 million U.S. dollars.[9]  The World Bank described the project as not meeting Samoa’s own requirements for procurement and that it is likely a “white elephant”, too costly a project to properly maintain over time.[10] Samoa’s Air Authority deemed the project not financially viable. Yet, Samoa accepted a loan of approximately 7.5% of its Gross Domestic Product to complete the project.[11]  While there are no guarantees the airfields mentioned would be stationed with Chinese Airmen in the event of a conflict, Hawaii and American Samoa now lie potentially separated from two major allies in Australia and New Zealand.

Particularly concerning and dangerous to the United States Joint Force Command and U.S. allies and partners in the region is the Solomon Islands’s intent to sign the so-called “Framework Agreement”, to allow China broad authority to deploy its armed forces, including military and armed police to the Islands. While the agreement does allow Honiara the ability to decline a port visit by the Chinese Navy, a leaked draft includes a provision that gives China the ability to “act according to its own needs.”[12]

The potential introduction of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels stationed in and around the Coral Sea exponentially raises operational risk due to the aggressive nature of PLAN maritime activities demonstrated in contested areas. To date, PLAN has not demonstrated aggressive tactics other than in locations that China claims as its own. However, the possibility remains that PLAN stationing in the region could create conditions for similarly contested waters. The United States Joint Force Command and maritime cargo traversing between the mainland United States and Australia would be under constant surveillance and threat of interdiction in a wartime scenario, and Chinese intelligence-gathering entities could operate freely on terrain just over 1,000 miles from the U.S.’s largest ally in the region.

Despite the danger, there is a bit of good news. Popular opposition against the Solomon Island government’s stance is growing, and these opposition leaders are pressing Australia for increased aid. Additionally, aggressive efforts by the Chinese in the region, such as a proposed fishing facility in Daru, Papua New Guinea, have stalled due to the popular opposition of local residents and leaders.[13] Chinese military ambition in the region remains dangerous but attempts to build permanent PLAN bases in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands have not come to fruition.[14] 

Despite recent shortfalls, China remains committed to contesting U.S. hegemony in the region and already poses a significant threat to the United States Joint Force Command’s ability to traverse Sea Lines of Communication in the Area of Operations. As Congressman Michael Gallagher warned, “if we fail to reverse current trends, we are going to wake up one day and we will have either lost a war or abandoned Taiwan. In so doing, we will have allowed the Chinese military to turn Japan’s flank, handed the Chinese Communist Party control over a commanding share of global semiconductor production, and broadcast to the entire world that the United States does not stand by its friends.”[15]

Why the U.S. Must Act Now

Despite Chinese inroads, the time to act is now. By exploiting a dip in the Chinese economy and its waning public perception, the U.S. and its considerable number of allies in the region may yet be able to stem the tide of increased Chinese favorability.[16]  Time is of the essence for action, as there are two schools of thought about the planning horizon for a potential Chinese attempt to settle the Taiwan issue once and for all. On one hand, Admiral Phil Davidson postulated that China may take action against the island by 2027, a date that coincides with the 100-year anniversary of founding of the PLA.[17] On the other, prominent China “hawk” Kyle Bass recently said China’s likely target date for reunification is 2024[18],  to coincide with both Taiwan’s Presidential election cycle as well as what is likely to be a very turbulent election year in the U.S.

Regardless of which planning horizon is considered, preparation time is limited, and recent economic news out of China may provide the opening that the U.S. needs to sprint through in order to deter Chinese aggression. China’s rise has allowed it to invest heavily in Oceania in the form of loans, grants, and aid, and it heavily incentivized local governments to come along for the ride.

Aside from the economic aspect, the veil may also be lifting on the ethics of China in relation to its partners. The Chinese approach to fishing, a critical component of the maritime economies of the region, has raised alarm among Pacific nations. In August 2020 in the Galapagos Islands alone, a Chinese fishing fleet worked 73,000 hours to harvest fish and squid.[19] This led local fisherman Alberto Andrade to say, “Our seas can’t handle this pressure anymore…the industrial fleets are razing the stocks, and we are afraid that in the future there will be no more fishery.”[20] The Chinese fishing fleet’s demonstrated history of apathy toward environmental conservation and local fishing industries may be starting to create an exploitable gap.

Another factor that has Pacific Island nations operating against the clock is sea level rise. This issue has political implications in the United States, but noticeable physical impacts among potential allies and partners in Oceania. According to one United Nations report from August 2023,  “the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said water levels were rising about four millimeters per year in some areas, slightly above the global mean rate”.[21] The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reports that numerous islands have “average elevations of only 2 meters above sea level and are exposed to waves as high as five to seven meters most winters.”[22] The same report details how sea level rise is outpacing reef growth which many of these islands count on to break up winter waves. The USGS goes on to state that the result could force “some inhabitants to abandon their homes in decades, rather than in centuries as previously thought.”[23] By acting quickly and with empathy, the United States could not only leverage its considerable resources to build partnerships but could quite literally save a portion of the world.

Why the Army Reserve Should Be the Implement of Choice

The U.S. Army Reserve (USAR) is uniquely positioned to lead in development and climate resiliency. Many Army Reserve soldiers serve in the civilian sector in roles complementary to their military work including as civil engineers, electricians, and master carpenters. Through military troop construction, the USA can increase partner capacity and improve quality of life for the residents of the region.

A simplified example project may look something like this: an airfield near an island of the Solomon Islands would be identified as being centrally located to support the stability and disaster response of the country, to stage supplies in the event of a localized inundation caused by sea level rise. The USAR would leverage assets such as the Contingency Response Unit or FEST teams with degreed engineers to plan and provide specifications for the project, with survey and design teams coming from the Battalion level. Horizontal and vertical construction Battalions would then arrive in rotations to build the airfield and associated structures. The Prime Power Battalion could set up the power grid, and an Engineer Facility Detachment (EFD) could conduct the punch list inspection.

This simplistic version outlines what could easily be done end-to-end with Army Reserve engineers. Throw in Army Reserve civil affairs and medical battalions and detachments, and a full partnership is possible. Military stationing in these countries remains a hot-button political issue, but with the appropriate amount of strategic empathy, the United States could soon prove to be the partner of choice over China in the region.


Oceania specifically, and the Indo-Pacific in general, represents the greatest strategic threat currently facing the United States. The United States Joint Force Command possesses the technology and capabilities to bolster the region. Through partnerships and empathy, the U.S. can create a Pacific for the Pacific people and establish a safe and secure region that can become a beacon of prosperity and hope. The United States Joint Force Command must do its part to reverse the period of inaction in Oceania before it’s too late, by acting urgently to exploit potential Chinese economic gaps, and using Army Reserve assets to rapidly construct projects that build partnerships and critical U.S. capacity in the region.  


Lieutenant Colonel Matt Holbrook is an Army Reserve Engineer Officer and the current Command Engineer for the 9th Mission Support Command in Fort Shafter Flats, Hawaii. He recently graduated from the U.S. Army War College as a member of the Resident Class of 2023. He, his wife Rachel, and six children call Knoxville, Tennessee home, and in his civilian career, he is an Associate Director for UnitedHealthcare Insurance.


[1] Pacific Community. “Kiribati Census Atlas” p. 14. Kiribati National Statistics Office. Noumea, New Caledonia. July, 2022. Population | Kiribati National Statistics Office (

[2] "Google Maps." Google.Com.,-171.779396,12.33z/data=!4m6!3m5!1s0x706517eb4daa4f91:0x851da4e096d67095!8m2!3d-2.7693312!4d-171.717967!16s%2Fm%2F0bmgvjm?authuser=0&entry=ttu.

[3] Barrett, Jonathan. "Kiribati Says China-backed Pacific Airstrip Project for Civilian Use." Reuters. May 13, 2021.

[4] Moroney, Jennifer D., and Alan Tidwell. "America's Strategy In Oceania: Time For A Better Approach." War on the Rocks. July 19, 2021.

[5] Moroney and Tidwell. "America's Strategy In Oceania: Time For A Better Approach."

[6] "China Development Finance." AIDDATA. The Research Lab at William & Mary, Accessed August 23, 2023.

[7] Moroney and Tidwell. "America's Strategy In Oceania: Time For A Better Approach."

[8] Case, Ed Rep. "Introducing the BLUE Pacific Act." Congressional Floor Speech at The US Capital, House Chamber, Washington D.C., July 30, 2020.

[9] "China Eximbank Provides RMB 340 Million Government Concessional Loan for Faleolo International Airport Upgrade Project." AIDDATA. The Research Lab at William & Mary, Accessed August 23, 2023.

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid.

[12] Taupongi, Robert. "The 'Framework Agreement' with China Transforms the Solomon Islands into a Pacific Flashpoint." Center for Strategic & International Studies. March 31, 2022.

[13] ibid

[14] Moroney and Tidwell. "America's Strategy In Oceania: Time For A Better Approach."

[15] Gallagher, Michael. "Prepare Now for War in the Pacific." U.S. Naval Institute. July 1, 2021.

[16] Carbonaro, Giulia. “How China’s Economy Collapsing Would Impact the U.S.” Newsweek. September, 2023. How China's Economy Collapsing Would Impact the U.S. (

[17] Suliman, Adela. "China Could Invade Taiwan in the Next 6 Years, Assume Global Leadership Role, U.S. Admiral Warns." NBC News. March 10, 2021.

[18] Gilchrist, Karen. "China Hawk Says Beijing Could Attack Taiwan by 2024, Bringing 'war to the West'." CNBC News. August 9, 2023.

[19] Mcdonald, Joshua. "Pacific Island Nations Wary of Chinese Fishing Fleets." The Diplomat. December 18, 2020.

[20] Myers, Steven L., Agnes Chang, Derek Watkins, and Claire Fu. "How China Targets the Global Fish Supply." The New York Times. September 26, 2022.

[21] Tetrault-Farber, Gabrielle. "Pacific Island Sea Levels Rising Faster than Global Average, WMO Says." Reuters. August 18, 2023.

[22] "Pacific Island Sea Levels Rising Faster than Global Average, WMO Says." US Geological Survey. Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center, June 27, 2022.

[23] ibid