Reversing strategic neglect: The US-Pacific Islands Country Summit

Photo credit: US State Department

On September 28-29, the United States hosted the historic US-Pacific Islands Country Summit in Washington, DC. The event marked the first summit between the U.S. and the Pacific Islands and was the first time in forty years that the U.S. President met with a congregation of leaders from the Pacific. For decades, the Pacific Islands have taken a backseat on the American strategic agenda, opening the backdoor for sustained Chinese engagement in the region. As U.S. concern over China’s rise has increased, recent engagements between China and the Pacific Islands have redirected U.S. attention to the region. Considering U.S. history in the region and its renewed geostrategic importance, the summit and its outcome can have significant effects on Sino-American competition and on the future of the islands.

Renewed Interest

The sudden push by the U.S. for increased re-engagement within the Pacific Island region should come as no surprise. Over the past few years, China has been seeking to increase its influence in the region which led to the security deal it made with the Solomon Islands earlier this year. The agreement between the two countries came after the Solomon Islands gradually moved towards China, which included Honiara no longer recognizing Taiwan as an independent state. The agreement between China and the Solomon Islands caused great concern within the U.S. due to fears of China establishing a military base on the islands. Realizing the threat of increased Chinese influence in the region, the U.S. announced it would be holding the inaugural US-Pacific Islands Country Summit in Washington, DC.

Besides the imminent threat posed by China, the Pacific Island region also holds historical value for the U.S. It holds three inhabited territories in the Pacific region—the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, and American Samoa—and has fostered other Pacific Island partnerships dating back to the Second World War. As part of its Pacific strategy during the war, the Pacific Islands formed critical battlegrounds and home bases for the U.S. To this day, it still has a military base stationed in Guam, which it views as vital to national security.

While the summit is the first of its kind, it should not be seen as an isolated act. Rather, the US-Pacific Islands Country Summit fits within the larger framework that the U.S. laid out in its Indo-Pacific Strategy. Unveiled on February 11, 2022, the new Indo-Pacific Strategy reconfirmed the importance of the Indo-Pacific as the prime geopolitical theater for the U.S. Recognizing the shifting geopolitical landscape, the document underlines China’s multidimensional approach in the region with a combination of its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to exert influence. The Indo-Pacific Strategy signals the security commitment of the Biden administration to the region, indicating a willingness to enhance its own regional capabilities and increase the resilience of its allies. Furthermore, the U.S. aims to deepen and expand its regional partnerships while driving economic prosperity.

Finding Common Ground

With the increased importance of the region, the geopolitical power struggle between the U.S. and China presents the Pacific Island countries with the opportunity to exert influence over the major powers after decades of strategic neglect. In order to ‘win over’ the Pacific Island countries, great powers cannot continue to overlook the pressing security issues these countries are facing. At the conceptual level, this implies that the U.S. needs to understand how security is perceived within the island group. As Fiji’s defense minister Inia Seruiratu stated, “[i]n our blue Pacific continent, machine guns, fighter jets, grey ships, and green battalions are not our primary security concern.” Seruiratu notes instead that “[t]he single greatest threat to our very existence is climate change.” While climate change is an important issue on the world’s international security agenda, this transnational challenge poses an existential threat to vulnerable Pacific Islands. In its document titled the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific, Pacific Island nations emphasized the threat posed by climate change and the need for proactive, collective action. In order for the U.S. to increase its regional influence vis-à-vis China, it must speak the language of the Pacific Islands when it comes to security.

The US-Pacific Islands Country Summit provided the ideal opportunity for both sides to address their security concerns in a collaborative manner. The two-day event, which saw both President Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken engage with 14 Pacific Island leaders, produced a series of documents outlining the future of US-Pacific Island relations. While initially the Solomon Islands voiced its unwillingness to sign the document, all parties ended up signing the agreements. In the end, the summit produced a Pacific Partnership Strategy, the Declaration on US-Pacific Partnership, and the Roadmap for a 21st-Century US-Pacific Island Partnership.

The summit addressed several key issues for both sides. The documents outline the following steps: the recognition of the Cook Islands and Niue as sovereign states, the reestablishment of U.S. embassies in the Solomon Islands, Tonga and Kiribati, and an enhanced U.S. presence in the region through USAID and the Coast Guard. To underline the U.S. commitment to the Pacific, the U.S. announced it will invest an additional $810 million dollars in the region. A vast majority of this sum will go towards a ten-year $600 million Economic Assistance Agreement linked to the South Pacific Tuna Treaty for continued naval access to regional exclusive economic zones. Additionally, the commitment will see the U.S. invest over $130 million dollars in order to address climate change in the region, while striving to leverage additional private sector funding. In comparison, the Chinese security agreement with the Solomon Islands in April 2022 saw China promise $730 million of financial aid to the Solomon Islands.

Ultimately, the summit and the declarations it produced reveal a clear geopolitical motive. The signed declaration does not directly mention China due to the Solomon Islands’ refusal to “pick sides”. Nevertheless, the agreements emphasize cooperation and shared commitments that offer financial incentives aimed at countering China’s influence in the region.

Building on the Outcomes

While the outcomes of the summit proved to be a successful first step in fostering deeper ties between the U.S. and the Pacific Islands, it should be seen as just a first step. The U.S. still has a long way to go if it wants to prove itself a reliable ally to the Pacific Islands, with a number of key issues still being unresolved. On the strategic level, a disconnect remains between the U.S. and the Pacific Islands with respect to security issues. While the summit addressed Pacific Islands’ climate concerns, the theme of US-China competition overshadowed discussions of non-traditional security threats. The Pacific Islands have little interest in the ongoing geopolitical competition between the U.S. and China and seek to maintain cooperative relations with both sides. When faced with the Common Development Vision agreement, which would draw the Pacific Islands closer to China, the president of the Federated States of Micronesia, David Panuelo, wrote a letter to 21 Pacific Island leaders stating that “the Common Development Vision threatens to bring a new Cold War era at best, and a World War at worst.” In this regard, the U.S. has already established a geopolitical bloc in the Pacific region through the Partners in the Blue Pacific (PBP) initiative. The PBP initiative—established between Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States—aims to ”continue to support prosperity, resilience, and security in the Pacific,” but neglected to properly consult the leaders of the Pacific Islands in the initiating phase.

Besides the disconnect in strategic aims, the summit failed to bring the parties closer together on the legacy of U.S. nuclear testing, specifically in the Marshall Islands. 67 nuclear tests in the Pacific Islands region between 1946 and 1958 reportedly “resulted in both immediate and continuing effects on the human rights of the Marshallese,” causing fatal health issues and permanent contamination within Enewetak Atoll and Bikini Atoll within the Marshall Islands. The refusal of the U.S. to take full responsibility for the effects of nuclear testing has become a roadblock in the negotiation for renewing the Compact of Free Association as the Marshall Islands seek reparations. Additionally, the legacy of U.S. nuclear testing in the Pacific Islands region aids Chinese rhetoric regarding modern day nuclear use in the region, such as the nuclear submarine deal between Australia, the UK and the U.S. While the summit addressed the nuclear legacy in the Marshall Islands by stating that ”[t]he United States remains committed to addressing the Republic of the Marshall Islands’ ongoing environmental, public health concerns, and other welfare concerns,” it avoids taking on any responsibility. Claims by the Marshall Islands, that the U.S. has underdelivered in its compensation and undersells the extent of its nuclear legacy, are countered by the U.S. by stating that it has fulfilled its settlement promise by paying more than $600 million dollars for resettlement, rehabilitation and healthcare costs.

Lastly, the U.S. cannot make up for decades of neglect with a single summit. It will take more than joint declarations and funds to change the hearts and minds of the Pacific Islanders. Like today, the U.S. sought to increase cooperation with the Pacific Islands during the later stages of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union sought to increase its influence in the Pacific region. However, once the Soviet threat evaporated, the U.S. seemingly forgot about its allies, leading to a Congressional hearing in 2007 asserting Pacific neglect. Additionally, the financial incentives should be put into perspective. Estimates of the needed financial aid for the Pacific Islands in order to effectively combat the effects of climate change reach as high as $1 billion dollars per year. The financial commitment of $130 million dollars by the U.S. has already led to the Ambassadors of Palau, Marshall Islands, and Federated States of Micronesia to state that U.S. economic assistance is insufficient.

Putting Words Into Action

In his address at the summit, President Biden stated that “[a] great deal of the history of our world is going to be written in the Indo-Pacific over the coming years and decades. And the Pacific Islands are a critical voice in shaping that future.” In an era of increased competition between the U.S. and China, the Pacific has become the main geopolitical theater. After decades of strategic neglect, the Pacific Islands now hold the cards at the negotiating table with both the U.S. and China. While the Pacific Islands see the two great powers using the region as a scene for their power struggle, the island nations face different security concerns. The dire effects of climate change present an existential threat to the Pacific Islands. If the U.S. wants to prove its long-term commitment, it must commit to the non-traditional security threats of the region. Realizing their geostrategic importance, the Pacific Island nations have already shown willingness to use their influence in order to raise awareness on climate change. The US-Pacific Islands Country Summit provided a significant diplomatic opportunity for both sides to achieve some of their objectives. It was, however, just the first step in what may turn out to be a series of geopolitical maneuvers between the U.S. and China. As China will likely respond to deepening ties between the U.S. and the Pacific Islands, the U.S. must continue to show bipartisan commitment to these vital allies. By acknowledging the role it can play vis-à-vis environmental threats, the U.S. can earn its status as a trusted and reliable partner. While strategic divides may persist, the U.S. and the Pacific Islands can address their security concerns in a collaborative manner. This collaboration does, however, require the U.S. to change the image it has cultivated within the region. After decades of strategic neglect, words by American leadership have to be put into action in order to build long-lasting partnerships that can shape the future of the Pacific.

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