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© The Costs of War Project


An Interview with Sasha Davis on the Economic Power of China

by Sasha Davis
April 9, 2018

This interview with Sasha Davis, a professor at University of Hawaii, Hilo, was conducted and condensed by Tatti Ribeiro for frank news.

Recently, the economic power of China in the region is influencing many Asia-Pacific locales to question hosting U.S. bases. People in places like Okinawa, Guam, Saipan, and Jeju Island, and South Korea more generally with the THAAD controversy, are concerned about how hosting U.S. military activities hurts their ability to attract Chinese tourists and investment.

OK. Yeah, I believe that one of the things influencing the way in which some of the places in the region are viewing American bases, and more American military operations and such, is the fact that China is becoming economically more powerful in the region. There are islands all around, like Okinawa, but also further out in the Pacific like Guam, Saipan, that are increasingly interested in attracting Chinese investment and Chinese tourists. And in the case of Japan, like overall last year, the figure I believe is around 6.5 million visits from Chinese tourists, and many of those to Okinawa. And so this has really become one of the major engines of the economy in some of these places. And so there's been a reluctance on the part of some of these countries to increase the militarization of the islands in a place like Okinawa, where the U.S. military is so prominent. I think there's a belief that some of the military landscapes being so close to some of the tourist oriented landscapes, can be a bit of a conflict for the industry.

What is the official U.S. military response to the pressures we’re facing from China?

Oh that's a good question. You know, I think that the U.S. military response has been a little more focused on what the Chinese military has been doing, as opposed to some of the investments and economic pressures. Things such as the way the U.S. has been doing the freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea, or the recent visit by the USS Carl Vinson I believe to Vietnam, as a way of sort of shoring up security relations with Vietnam. Kind of to show some solidarity against the Chinese there. But I haven't seen as much in terms of U.S. military pushback against the economic influences of China in some of these places. And I think part of that is that it's not necessarily read as a security threat. But I’m sure it's on the minds of military planners and people in the Department of Defense in Washington D.C. I'm just not sure if I've seen much of a military response to that Chinese economic influence.

Should there be a military response?

Well I'm not sure if the response is necessarily a military one as much as a political and potentially economic one. I think that it comes down to a little more with the U.S. you know, thinking about how it shores up its security relationships in the region. I think it needs to think about the fact that from the perspective of these islands, they have to look at the financial opportunities the United States might be bringing. And I'm not sure if that's today, quite as obvious as the potential positives of Chinese investments, or Chinese tourist spending in that part of Asia and the Pacific. And I think one thing that needs to be done is there probably needs to be more coordinated efforts with the State Department and the Department of Interior for places like Micronesia that fall under those parts of the U.S. federal government. Things like trying to cut aid to those countries, or having any kind of restrictions about migration abilities from places like Micronesia. It's something that isn't going to attract or keep those countries kind of oriented towards the United States.

I think the U.S. has to think about the fact that they have to negotiate with some of these countries knowing that the Chinese are trying to influence and negotiate there too.

How do you compare potential economic opportunity from China to say, security from the U.S?

Yeah it's interesting because I was just reading, and I think it was in some of the press coverage of the of the U.S. aircraft carrier visiting Vietnam, where there was a quote by somebody in Vietnam that says, you know, everybody likes the Chinese money but nobody trusts the Chinese. And of course maybe that's a little bit of a hyperbole saying everybody wants the money, and everybody doesn't trust them. But I think that is definitely an attitude I've seen across the region where a lot of the countries are very interested in the economic development, but they are wary of what the ulterior motives might be of that investment in places like in Micronesia, or Guam, or Saipan. There are real concerns over, is the Chinese government trying to buy influence? Or potentially through these large infrastructure projects, potentially putting military assets in there later. That comes up both locally and in U.S. concerns for the region.

Do you have any particular fears about what those consequences might be?

Yeah, I think some of the perspective I try to take from doing research in the region is to take the view of trying to kind of stand on the islands in the region and look outward, and look at what are the things that say the Chinese offer or what are the pressures coming from China, or the influences. And then looking at the United States and saying, what are the pressures or influences coming from the United States? And I think the islands that are there in the middle have to kind of try and navigate their own path through this larger context. And I think that there's been a pretty big concern about the consequences of American military activities in places like Guam, in places like Okinawa, and also in places like the Marshall Islands.

I think traditionally there has been some opposition that has kind of arisen in these islands because of the negative environmental and social consequences of that militarization. And so this is where a lot of the people, that are like the independence movement, say that more sovereignty movements in the region are usually kind of against U.S. political power or what have you. But now China is kind of entering the scene and there are a lot of concerns about if the islands in the region cozy up to China. Is this sort of changing one kind of imperial power for another? You know, is one more dangerous than the other, and this sort of thing, or destabilizing. On the other hand it also presents some opportunities now for governments in the region to kind of play one power off of the other. For things like getting investment, or aid, or just like you know, political attention.

I think China has been doing a pretty effective job of sort of doing a charm offensive if you will, in places like Micronesia. They'll have the head of Micronesia come to China and roll out the red carpet, and the fans, and promise aid and all the stuff.

Versus the kind of response they get when they arrive in Washington D.C. which is that they're kind of ignored to a large extent. I think those things matter. 

And in terms of the fears for the region I think mine sort of center on obviously hoping that there are still peaceful relationships that are maintained between the U.S. and China. Partially because if you look at most of the military strategies that involved military or military conflict, they involve those battles happening over those islands, that use them as bases and as battle spaces. Particularly around Okinawa, the East and South China Sea. But also further back with places like Guam, which would obviously be targeted. So I think from the perspective of those islands, they would want to make sure that those relationships between the big powers don't really sour.

Do you think economic pressure from China could change the dynamic between the U.S. and South Korea?

I think that there could be some. You know I certainly don't see the South Korean government abandoning their military alliance with the United States as long as there is a North Korea that is threatening. I can't imagine that that would be seen as kind of politically palatable. But yeah, the rising economic influence of China does mean that South Korea has to think more about kind of watching their steps in a sense. In terms of the way in which U.S. militarization in South Korea is perceived as being a threat to China. I think the THAAD controversy is a great example of this, where the South Korean economy, particularly the tourist economy, but also some of their exports and some of their companies that operate in China, were absolutely hammered by what is essentially a Chinese boycott of South Korea after they agreed to allow U.S. missile defense to come into South Korea. Because China looked at it as being aimed towards them, or as kind of destabilizing the deterrence that Chinese missiles could play in Asia. And so I think that South Korea has to be conscious of that.

But in terms of like, the base in Pyeongtaek and that sort of thing, you know, there are other domestic concerns in South Korea from people that want less dependence on U.S. military, or chafe at the local effects of militarization, of the operation of the bases, and the way the land was taken around Pyeongtaek, and then some of the environmental and social problems with the exercises. 

But I think overall, that South Korea maybe now, sort of has to think about playing both sides a little more than they may have been in recent decades, and I think maybe a model for this would be like the Philippines. The Philippines was once, even a few years ago, very staunchly pro U.S, very anti China. The stuff from the South China Sea was really reaching a fever pitch and then politically things shifted. Where now you've got the Philippines really playing both sides and looking for Chinese investment. They're kind of putting the U.S. at more of an arms length, at least rhetorically. But yet they also are still certainly keeping those military connections in place in the Philippines, and don't want to alienate the U.S. so much that they feel like they might be at the mercy of Chinese power in the South China Sea. So I could see South Korea kind of taking a similar tact. But you know, the South Korean leadership is a little more reasonable than the Philippine leadership right now. But I think their context is somewhat similar.

That’s really interesting.

Yeah. I mean one thing that I think is important to kind of reiterate, is one of the things that I think is an under-appreciated aspect of the US's ability to maintain security relationships in these places, like South Korea, or Okinawa, or Guam, or other areas in the Pacific. I think that Americans need to understand that being next to these large military installations is seen as a sacrifice, as a burden. You know, there are major environmental and social consequences of doing that, and Americans shouldn't take this for granted. That these will always be there, and they can operate however they want to without having to care what people in Okinawa or Guam or South Korea think. Because many bases and training ranges have been negatively impacted by people in these places having opposition to the bases. So I think it's important that Americans recognize that more complex terrain these bases are in.

I agree we just take it as it is. It’s important to think critically about it, which obviously you do as a profession. But for everybody else to look at it through that lens.

Another key thing like said, I don't know if Americans appreciate, is even if there's an agreement between say the U.S. and Japanese government, if enough people in Okinawa don't want that base to be there, then it will get worse. It doesn't get built, or gets delayed for years, and years, and years, and so there really needs to be, I think more engagement at the local levels and recognition that things have to be done differently. I think to kind of respect local wishes in some of these areas.

What about in other regions? How is China’s presence in Africa affecting U.S. presence there?

Well I don't have a lot of on the ground knowledge of what's going on other than I know the different U.S. military installations and operations that have been going on across the Sahel, and also in the Horn of Africa, and how China is increasing both military presence in those areas side by side with their investments. And you look at the whole, One Belt One Road project, of China developing the infrastructure to connect China to Africa, particularly to East Africa. And they are having more economic, political, and military operations and focus on that region. And it's also a region that now the U.S. is paying a little more attention to as well. Partially because of the existence of the different kind of fundamentalist Islam groups in the area and their connections to terrorism in Africa. So I think there are some similarities there with Africa as well as in the Pacific. I think that they operate in those regions where, it's sort of between the empires if you will.

Africa - edit

You have these larger powers like China or like the United States, or you know even large countries like India, that are kind of trying to project their ability to facilitate their security projects in those areas. And when you look at places like Africa, or even the Western Pacific, they're on the edges, and the contact zone between these larger powers, and they’re borders of a kind. And so I think that it's because those areas are unstable, and because it's not necessarily clear, kind of, who's sphere of influence they may be under, it's a place where there's potential for conflict or at least for competition between the different great powers. And so because of that it can definitely cause destabilization both in Africa or in the Indian Ocean, or even out in the Pacific.

Does it seem like a play for hegemony on China’s part?

Absolutely it is.

You know it's interesting because as you know, some of the literature on China's traditional conceptualizations of hegemony, and what they politically strive for — a lot of their political tactics and strategies have been about preventing US hegemony. Not so much necessarily to produce their own. Because there's actually a lot of concern that what comes with being a global hegemon in terms of you know, all that you've got to do to back it up militarily. It costs a lot of money. Chinese strategies that I read about, tend to imagine their preference as sort of a multipolar world where Chinese interests are kind of not hemmed in as much by a U.S. kind of hegemony. But that's not necessarily replacing it. But certainly they want more wiggle room. And I think some of their moves towards the west, towards Africa, into places like Central Asia, come from a concern with U.S. power in the western Pacific

Chinese military and political strategists read the U.S. strategies of what war in the Pacific might look like. And most of the U.S. strategies are centered around being able to blockade China's east coast, not let trade in or out, and keep them hemmed in. 

A lot of what they've been doing is about creating a back door to that, creating rail links to Southeast Asia, or Central Asia. Energy supplies making them much less susceptible to U.S. naval and air power in the Pacific.

I think that plays into their strategies of aiming towards Central Asia and towards Africa. It is also about kind of having an escape route I guess from an American power that's amassed in the western Pacific.

Right. That makes sense. Well, thank you again for your time.

Sure! No problem.