In recent years, the Pacific Island region has emerged as an important area of geopolitical contestations. The growing focus on the Indo-Pacific by the United States (US), China’s engagement with the Pacific Island Countries (PICs), the rising US-China competition and negative impact of climate change have brought attention to the Pacific Island region.
United States Policy towards the Pacific Island Countries
The growing engagement between the PICs and China has led to a realisation within the US that “the Pacific Islands may not have received the diplomatic attention and support that (they) deserve.” To overturn this deficit in the US policy, President Biden became the first US President to address the Pacific Island Forum in 2021, Secretary of State Blinken visited Fiji in 2022 where he launched the Indo-Pacific Strategy and announced that the US would reopen its embassy in the Solomon Islands, which has been closed since 1993.
Vice President Kamala Harris, in her speech at the Pacific Island Forum 2022, outlined the US policy which will deepen its engagements with the region in the future. In its efforts for course correction, the US announced that it will open two new embassies in the region, in Tonga and Kiribati, respectively. The decision to open an embassy in Tonga and Kiribati is being viewed as an effort to counter the growing Chinese diplomatic presence in the region which is also opening an embassy in Kiribati. This is also important as Kiribati has withdrawn from the PIF outlining that the forum has not adequately addressed the concerns of Micronesian nations like Kiribati. While the decision is welcome, the US would have to ensure that its diplomatic presence is leads to active engagement of the PICs in the larger Indo-Pacific Strategy goals. The US also announced the appointment of its first envoy to the Pacific Island Forum and stated that its Peace Corps volunteers would return to the region. The USAID will also re-establish its regional mission in Fiji. Vice President Harris in her remarks at the annual meeting of the Forum’s leaders (2022) stated that, the Biden Administration will request the US Congress to increase US funding for economic development and ocean resilience for the Pacific Islands from the current USD 21 million to USD 60 million per year over the next ten years.
For the US to formulate an effective policy and engage with the PICs, it has to first accept and thereafter address the challenges arising from China’s presence in the Pacific Island region. Second, like its policies towards the North Pacific, the US must outline its policy objectives for the South Pacific region and how it aims to achieve its goals. The Biden Administration has committed to releasing the first US National Strategy for the Pacific Islands. The strategy document could help merge the US policy outlooks for the North and South Pacific into one and outline the role of the PICs in the broader US Indo-Pacific Strategy. The North Pacific is geographically closer and the US has coordinated more with the countries of here. Australia, an alliance partner to the US, is the primary security provider for the countries in the South Pacific. The US works in close coordination with its allies in the region to ensure security and stability in the region. The strategy document could also help identify areas of convergences between the US’ Indo-Pacific Strategy and the Pacific Island Forum’s 2050 Strategy for Blue Pacific Continent. Third, the US needs to work closely with its partners -Australia and New Zealand- to ensure that the resources that are directed to the Pacific Islands, meet the development needs of the countries of the region. Both Australia and New Zealand are part of a number of regional groupings and work closely with the PICs to support economic growth, stability and security, sustainable development and building collective regional response to critical issues. They could take the lead in bridging the gap in policy between the PICs and the US.
To address the geopolitical churn that is undertaking in the Pacific region, the US would need to strengthen its presence in the region. The US has announced that it would open new embassies in Kiribati and Tonga and also appoint the first ever US Envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum. This is much needed to increase the US diplomatic footprint in the region. Apart from this, Naval exercises and Coast Guard patrols will also help showcase the US presence in the region. In response to a request from the Solomon Islands, the US Coast Guard in June 2022 diverted its cutter Myrtle Hazard to patrol the Solomon Island’s Exclusive Economic Zone. The US Coast Guard is an integral part of the larger US’ Indo-Pacific Strategy and has deep institutional linkages with law enforcement and security organisations of the PICs. The US Coast Guard regularly deploys its vessels to the waters of the Pacific Island region in support of Operation Blue Pacific,. With the maritime area, the key to economic growth and main source of food for the PICs, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is a major concern. The US Coast Guard helps deter such activities. This also provides a link to China, whose fishing vessels are not viewed benignly and are known for overfishing and fishing in the waters of other nations.
Emerging challenges from climate crisis to infrastructure needs require cooperation across borders. Towards this end, the US has launched the Partners in the Blue Pacific (PBP) initiative (with Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom) in June 2022. The PBP is dedicated to supporting Pacific priorities, to bolstering Pacific regionalism, and to expanding opportunities between the Pacific and the world. The initiative will provide US$ 2.1 billion in development assistance for the region, and will be led and guided by the Pacific Islands. While the initiative is welcome, PICs are looking for sustained US commitment towards the region and its development.
The PICs welcome the re-engagement with the US, but it is unlikely that they will disengage from China. China has dramatically increased its bilateral and economic presence in the region as well as made attempts to influence multilateral institutions. The US needs to accept this reality while focusing on meeting the competition from China. The US needs to build a policy towards the PIC that not only highlights the US objectives for the region but also emphasises the path to build a long term and sustainable partnership with the countries of the region. The US could do so by bringing to attention its long relationship with the PICs and the fact that it is a Pacific country.
*Dr. Stuti Banerjee, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are personal.
The White House, “Remarks by Vice President Harris at the Pacific Islands Forum, 12 July 2022,” https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2022/07/12/remarks-by-vice-president-harris-at-the-pacific-islands-forum/, Accessed on 14 July 2022.
The Pacific Islands Forum is the region’s premier political and economic policy organisation. Founded in 1971, it comprises 18 members: Australia, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, French Polynesia, Kiribati, Nauru, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu. The Forum’s Pacific Vision is for a region of peace, harmony, security, social inclusion and prosperity, so that all Pacific people can lead free, healthy, and productive lives.
The White House, “Remarks by Vice President Harris at the Pacific Islands Forum, 12 July 2022,” https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2022/07/12/remarks-by-vice-president-harris-at-the-pacific-islands-forum/, Accessed on 14 July 2022
The North Pacific for the United States comprises of the American territories of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands and the Freely Associated States (The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), Palau, and the Federated States of Micronesia)
Operation Blue Pacific is an overarching multi-mission Coast Guard endeavor promoting security, safety, sovereignty, and economic prosperity in Oceania while strengthening relationships between partners in the region with an emphasis on deterring IUU fishing.
U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, “Coast Guard Assists in Patrolling Solomon Islands Exclusive Economic Zone,” https://www.pacom.mil/Media/News/News-Article-View/Article/3048278/coast-guard-assists-in-patrolling-solomon-islands-exclusive-economic-zone/, Accessed on 15 July 2022
The White House, “Fact Sheet: Vice President Harris Announces Commitments to Strengthen U.S. Partnership with the Pacific Islands, 12 July 2022,” https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/07/12/fact-sheet-vice-president-harris-announces-commitments-to-strengthen-u-s-partnership-with-the-pacific-islands/, Accessed on 15 July 2022