As leaders from across the Pacific, and special envoys from the U.S. and China, descended on the Cook Islands in November for the region’s largest annual forum, they couldn’t have failed to notice the main island’s sports arena, or the capital city’s police station, or its Department of Justice.

All these buildings have one thing in common: they were built by Chinese state-owned companies.

Now, as the U.S. tries to push back against Chinese influence in the Pacific, it’s faced with the painful reality that Beijing seems to have made massive inroads in a region where it had long-standing and deep ties, helped by years of sustained presence and commitment to the region’s nations.