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US Must Defend Its Pacific Territories Against Chinese Threat: Former NSC Director

A view of U.S. military planes parked on the tarmac of Andersen Air Force base on the island of Guam, a U.S. Pacific Territory, August 15, 2017.  (Reuters/Erik De Castro)

In light of the growing influence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the Indo-Pacific, it is imperative for the United States to devote as much attention to the defense of its Pacific territories as it does to the defense of its states, said a former National Security Council (NSC) director during an oversight hearing organized by the Subcommittee on Indian and Insular Affairs on May 16.

“Washington needs to begin prioritizing the defense of U.S. Pacific territories and possessions, the same way we would address those same actions against a U.S. state,” Alexander Gray, the first-ever director for Oceania and Indo-Pacific security at the NSC, told the subcommittee. Gray served in the position during the Trump administration. He is currently a Managing Partner of American Global Strategies, LLC.

The American territories in the Pacific include Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. All, said Gray, are in vital sea lanes and host critical military infrastructure and assets.

The U.S. has nine additional Pacific possessions: Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, Midway Atoll, Palmyra Atoll, and Wake Island. The ninth is Navassa Island in the Caribbean, which is a disputed possession.

A Neglected Focus

“While PRC [People’s Republic of China] ambitions have received considerable media coverage and high-level official attention in places like the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, there has been an alarming dearth of focus on Beijing’s efforts to penetrate, influence, and subvert U.S. territories, for which our government is directly responsible,” said Gray.

The hearing was entitled “Preserving U.S. Interests in the Indo-Pacific: Examining How U.S. Engagement Counters Chinese Influence in the Region.”

It featured four other witnesses: Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst with the Rand Corporation; Cleo Paskal, a non-resident senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies; Peter Watson, President and CEO of The Dwight Group LLC, and Emil Friberg, former assistant director and senior economist at the Government Accountability Office in Washington, D.C.

Gray focused on the U.S. Pacific territories, which he believes have not received the attention and resources needed to address China’s predatory tactics. As the director for Oceania and Indo-Pacific security at the NSC, he said, he witnessed firsthand the growing influence of the Chinese communist regime across the Pacific, including in U.S. territories and insular areas.

“The strategic reality in the region has made U.S. territories and possessions in the Pacific a prime target for PRC malign influence. As others have noted, this influence can come in many forms: propaganda, traditional espionage, influence operations targeted at elites, but also general public opinion, and more,” Gray said.

“U.S.-specific territories have witnessed the full spectrum of PRC operations, but given their anomalous status within the U.S. government … they fail to receive the attention and the resources to appropriately address the predations of the PRC.”

Suggested Objectives

Gray offered a series of suggestions for increasing the defense of U.S. Pacific territories against the CCP’s malign influence, including enhancing the responsiveness of senior levels of the U.S. government to the situation.

“It is time for the National Security Council to establish an inter-agency policy process shared at the assistant secretary level by an appropriate NSC official, to respond to threats to U.S. territories and to integrate this response into our larger national security strategy,” said Gray, adding that this process should have representation from across the U.S. government.

The U.S. administration, according to Gray, should set up a director-level position at the National Security Council. This position should be focused on the U.S. territories and possessions and should provide staff support to the inter-agency policy process that Gray suggested.

“My understanding is that the position that I occupied at the NSC is no longer entirely devoted to the Pacific islands, that it has reverted to covering Southeast Asia as well as the Pacific Islands,” he said in response to a question by subcommittee chair Harriet Hageman about whether the Trump model for the region is being carried forward by the Biden administration.

Gray believes that an NSC director should be entirely focused on the Pacific Islands.  Further, he said, “I think there should be a director who is also entirely focused on our territories and possessions.”

“And if you don’t have someone who is day-to-day focused in these areas, you will have neglect,” said Gray.

He also recommended that the administration move forward with the process of evaluating a permanent Coast Guard station in American Samoa.

“The Coast Guard is the entity most capable of defending and safeguarding U.S. sovereignty in the U.S. territories and possessions. They need additional resources to undertake that mission,” he said.

Countering Malign Activity

He suggested that bureaucratically, the administration’s resources should be strengthened to counter China’s malign activity in the region. These “bureaucratic fixes” could include opening additional FBI field offices outside of Honolulu, in the U.S. territories and possessions.

“It also means taking the PRC’s economic assault on our Pacific territories more seriously, and integrating efforts by Departments of Commerce, Treasury, and Labor into a larger policy process to address challenges, like what has happened to the [Canary Islands] and American Samoa, which is a direct result of the PRC’s economic coercion,” said Gray.

These “bureaucratic fixes” in the U.S. territories and possessions in the Pacific, according to Gray, will lay the groundwork for the U.S. to face the unfolding great power competition.

“In addition to the strategic rationale, we owe it to the Americans who call these islands home to structure the U.S. government appropriately, apply the appropriate attention and focus to safeguarding them from malign interference and influence,” he told the subcommittee.