Can the US Follow up on Blinken’s Pacific Islands Outreach?

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Can the US Follow up on Blinken’s Pacific Islands Outreach?

With Blinken’s trip to Fiji, the Biden administration wanted to signal a renewed focus on the Pacific Islands. It will take more than one trip to make that message stick.

Can the US Follow up on Blinken’s Pacific Islands Outreach?

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Pacific Island leaders in Nadi, Fiji, on February 12, 2022.

Credit: U.S. State Department photo by Ron Przysucha

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken took care of a raft of Indo-Pacific regional business during his express trip to Melbourne, Fiji, and Hawai’i last week. Conducted while the Beijing Winter Olympics were underway and amid fears of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine, Blinken’s visit was the Biden administration’s first cabinet-level visit to the Pacific Islands. Ukraine, and moreover China, were very much in mind during Blinken’s brief visit to Fiji on February 12, when he became the first U.S. secretary of state to make the trip in 36 years.

Blinken’s Fiji meetings also came just after the release of the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy document, which highlights the pervasive U.S. concerns about China. The shadows in the Pacific cast by an assertive and very active China, which has recently been using humanitarian aid missions to the Solomon Islands and Tonga as a means to advance a military agenda, were evident throughout the meetings in Fiji.

Blinken’s visit was designed to show that the United States is “a Pacific nation.” The United States’ inability to keep pace with China’s massive surge of interest in the Pacific Islands since the 2000s, coupled with Washington’s failure to keep its attention focused on the region when faced with constant distractions elsewhere, have eroded the U.S. presence significantly. During a joint press conference with Blinken, Fiji’s Acting Prime Minister Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum plainly stated a widespread feeling among Pacific Island nations when he said they felt “like flyover countries… small dots spotted from plane windows of leaders en route to meetings where they spoke about us rather than with us, if they spoke of us at all.” Blinken’s visit promised a new era of regional focus and engagement from the United States, though the constant reference to Ukraine during the joint press conference with Sayed-Khaiyum was a demonstration of how challenging this undertaking is.

Following bilateral meetings in Fiji on February 12, Blinken hosted a virtual meeting with 14 Pacific nations, including the French Territories of New Caledonia and French Polynesia. This much-heralded meeting was an hour long and entailed each participant reading a brief statement summarizing the most pressing issues facing each nation. It was a modest beginning to a new era of U.S. engagement, but it nonetheless is a development the region welcomes.

The challenges of COVID-19, currently ravaging the region in uneven ways, provided a unifying theme during the statements. As urgent and consuming as the COVID-19-related health and economic crises are, however, voices from the region forcefully reiterated to Blinken that climate change remains the highest priority for the island Pacific. Pacific peoples are now fighting “a climate war that is devastating our people unlike any conflict before it,” said Fiji’s Sayed-Khaiyum.

Sayed-Khaiyum’s reference to the climate war was made in the context of the history of World War II. He made the very telling observation that the Second World War, when American soldiers were welcomed to Fijian shores, was “the last significant American presence we felt in Fiji.” This history cast shadows over Blinken’s visit in other ways. He arrived in the region the week before the 80th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore on February 15, 1942, a cataclysmic event that crushed resistance to Japan’s southern advance, triggering immense and bloody U.S. engagements throughout the Pacific Islands. The brutal and iconic Battle of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands commenced in August 1942, six months after Singapore fell.

This wartime history forever binds the United States with the Pacific. This point was also not lost on Solomon Islands’ Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele when he addressed the U.S.-Pacific Leaders Meeting. Manele noted that future U.S. President John F. Kennedy was one of the thousands of Americans who served in the Solomon Islands, and that Kennedy’s life was saved by local people in 1943. Manele also addressed the war’s ongoing legacies in the form of unexploded ordinance, stating that the Solomon Islands wishes to continue working with the United States on this issue.

The Solomon Islands was also at the center of Blinken’s key regional announcement for the visit, the re-opening of a U.S. embassy in Honiara. The United States’ re-entry into the fractious context in the Solomon Islands is a critical development. In late November 2021, the Solomon Islands government called in regional peacekeeping forces to quell violent riots. The U.S. relationship with the Solomon Islands’ national government has been complicated since it shifted its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in September 2019. In October 2020, the United States announced a huge aid package to the island province of Malaita, whose provincial government rebuked the diplomatic shifts, reigniting long-standing divisions in the nation that fueled the deadly Honiara riots of November 2021.

The opportunities for U.S. to be a positive influence in the Solomon Islands are great, especially given the critical COVID-19 situation, layered over the fragile domestic security context. In Washington’s work to rebuild relations, evoking World War II-era history will no doubt be a constant refrain from forthcoming Honiara-based U.S. diplomatic representatives. Caroline Kennedy’s upcoming tenure as the next U.S. ambassador to Australia (subject to Senate confirmation), will provide a golden opportunity for her to retrace her father’s Solomon Islands connection while forging stronger bilateral relations in the present.

Another tangible affirmation of the sentiments expressed during the Blinken visit would be a rapid reversal of the current slow progress over the United States’ expiring Compacts of Free Association (COFA) with the Republic of Marshall Islands (RMI), the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), and the Republic of Palau. Just prior to Blinken’s visit, attention was focused on the fact that negotiations between the U.S. and the RMI had not progressed since December 2020. This has led to the U.S. squandering the vital advantages these alliances give it, while also squeezing loyal allies over their highest priority foreign policy issue – their relationships with the U.S.

The other way that the United States might be able to strengthen its Pacific position is related to the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). One year ago, the five Micronesian nations signaled they were going to withdraw from the PIF. Just prior to Blinken’s visit to Fiji, Palau and the FSM announced that they were pausing that process. This followed the PIF’s pledge to enact as yet unspecified “reforms.” The other three nations that had announced a withdrawal – the RMI, Kiribati, and Nauru – have not yet made statements on the pause.

The anticipated installation of a Micronesian secretary general of PIF is one of the key reforms necessary for averting the exodus. Henry Puna, who controversially won the position of PIF secretary general, the event that precipitated the defection of the five Micronesian nations, is now expected to resign mid-year – although this has been disputed by the Cook Islands, Puna’s home country.

Some in the region underline that the Micronesian problems with PIF ran far deeper than just who helmed the organization. Issues ranged from marginalization within a group weighted toward South Pacific islands and, with the admission of French territories New Caledonia and French Polynesia as members, unclear rules about sovereignty being a prerequisite for membership status. China-Taiwan tensions are a factor in PIF, too.  The RMI, Palau, Tuvalu, and Nauru alone still recognize Taiwan in the Pacific, with the Solomon Islands as well as Kiribati severing ties with Taipei in 2019.

One possible PIF reform that would have a major impact on the U.S. agenda of elevating its Pacific presence would be the admission of its territories – Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), and American Samoa – to member status in PIF, following the precedent set by New Caledonia and French Polynesia. This would be a very positive outcome for the United States and open the way for a far deeper regional engagement.

Within the U.S. itself, the new emphasis on Pacific engagement will require more dedicated people working on Pacific Island issues, which continue to be vulnerable to being subsumed within the broader Indo-Pacific concept or “Asian American and Pacific Islander” initiatives. The announcement that U.S. President Joe Biden will host Pacific Island leaders in Hawai’i in the coming months is also a welcome development; however, this cannot be a photo opportunity or a box-ticking exercise, but rather must be embedded in a wide-ranging enactment of the pledge that the U.S. is present and reengaged in the Island Pacific.