Can the US Open a ‘New Chapter’ With the Pacific?

Recent Features

Oceania | Diplomacy | Oceania

Can the US Open a ‘New Chapter’ With the Pacific?

A U.S. return to the Pacific could yield great benefit, but that return has to be done right, and it should start with an upscaling of America’s Pacific literacy.

Can the US Open a ‘New Chapter’ With the Pacific?
Credit: Depositphotos

Vice President Kamala Harris’ address to the Pacific Islands Forum on July 13 was intended to set a new tone. Harris noted numerous times that the U.S. was beginning a “new chapter” in America’s long relationship with the Pacific.  

Harris’ address, though brimming with warmth and earnest undertakings, was controversial. That she was allowed to speak to the Pacific leaders in the first place was contentious. In the context of acute geopolitical pressures, the 18-member forum (though member numbers have also, controversially, declined this week) decided to disinvite the leaders of the 21 dialogue members, most notably those of the U.S. and China. Yet, Harris opened the day’s discussions in Suva, albeit remotely, a move described by one leading Pacific journalist as the U.S. pushing “its way onto the agenda.” Challenging that perception are the words of the forum chair, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, a man unaccustomed to being pushed by others, who noted Harris was speaking at his invitation.

A similar opportunity to address the gathering was not extended to China. It was perhaps no coincidence that two Chinese defense attaches, unauthorized to attend the in-person session at which Harris spoke, were hastily removed by police. It was a theatrical demonstration of China’s looming power and ambition at the talks. Even in absentia, China is still playing a spoiler role in Suva. 

In May, China proposed establishing a bloc of “China-Pacific Island nations,” an idea that was rebuffed by a majority of Pacific Islands Forum members. Yet the revelation on July 11 that Kiribati was withdrawing from the forum was immediately attributed to China’s handiwork, an analysis that has only strengthened as the week has progressed.

Former I-Kiribati President Anote Tong told the Radio New Zealand that the country’s current president, Taneti Maamau, was “cooking something” with China that may resemble the security deal the Solomon Islands signed with China in April. It would likely begin, Tong said, with opening up the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, the largest protected marine area in the world, encompassing an area spanning 400,000 square kilometers of Pacific Ocean that meets the U.S. maritime border. Tong said the area could be opened for China’s exclusive use for fishing and, given China’s history in the South China Sea, “gray zone” militarization of islands that abut U.S. Pacific territories.

Harris’ speech to the Pacific Islands Forum, the latest high-level U.S. overture to the Pacific region, was all about China though she did not mention the country by name. Her speech felt like history repeating, going back to the mid-1980s when an uptick of Soviet Union activity in the Pacific, again under the guise of accessing fishing grounds, prompted the U.S. to spring into action. Washington brokered a series of treaties and agreements that kept Cold War geostrategic competition at bay by ensuring that the Pacific Islands remained the exclusive domain of the U.S. and its allies, France, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.  

At the time, it was widely acknowledged that the post-war Pacific Islands suffered greatly due to the United States’ “benign neglect.” The Soviet Union’s contest of U.S. Pacific hegemony prompted the U.S. for a brief period to pay the region some attention before the collapse of the Soviet Union alleviated the pressure. Out of this increased attention came the Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders, which has met 11 times (the latest was a 2021 virtual meeting in Honolulu) since it was founded in 1980. More consequential was the 1987 fisheries treaty, known as the “South Pacific Tuna Treaty,” signed with 16 Pacific Island parties. In 2017, when the treaty was amended, then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described it as “a cornerstone of our relations with the Pacific Islands region for approximately three decades.” Harris echoed these sentiments about the Tuna Treaty in her address.

It was also in this Cold War context that the U.S. framed the Compacts of Free Association with three former U.N. Trust Territories that became the independent nations of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau in the mid-1980s. The compacts funded these nations’ governmental operations and allowed work and residency rights for their citizens in the United States, which sparked the growth of numerous diaspora communities across the U.S. In exchange, the U.S. was guaranteed control over their oceanic territories, at the exclusion of other parties.

These 20-year  agreements were recently renegotiated for the third time and will be completed in the coming months. Earlier in 2022, nothing was being done to advance the agreements, but the growing contest with China in 2022 spurred the White House into action. Progress happened quickly from March 2022 when special envoy Ambassador Joseph Yun was appointed by the White House to oversee the complex negotiations.

Given that the U.S. and the Pacific Islands have been down this road before, how can things be done better this time round? Harris was astute to commence her address by noting that the U.S. is home to some 1.4 million people of Pacific Island heritage. She also noted that, coming from California, where a large proportion of U.S.-based Pacific Islanders live, she was well aware of the myriad and important contributions these communities make to the nation. America’s Pacific diaspora is an immense asset for the U.S. and ensuring the improved well-being of these communities, many of whom occupy the lower socioeconomic strata, has a direct impact on the well-being of home islands given how fluid the flows of resources and people (COVID-19 border closures notwithstanding) are between Pacific residents and those living transnationally. 

The Biden administration’s initiative targeting Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (titled WHIAANHPI) is attempting to reduce the immense disparities Pacific Islanders face in the U.S. Yet a growing number of Pacific people are voicing concerns about their grouped categorization with Asian Americans, whose experiences and circumstances often bear little resemblance to their own. The constant conflation of Asian and Pacific issues within the U.S. government and beyond – particularly in academia – where knowing Asia necessarily means you also “know the Pacific” (though the reverse is never the case) is a notion the U.S. must abandon if it genuinely seeks a “new chapter” with the Pacific. 

Harris outlined specific details of the U.S. upscaling of its Pacific presence. She noted the appointment of a U.S. envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum, the recommencement of Peace Corps activities in the region, the establishment of a regional mission in Suva for USAID, and the establishment of two new embassies in Tonga and Kiribati. Also, Harris outlined substantial new spending on ocean health, climate mitigation, and resilience, the primary concerns of Pacific Islands nations. In a veiled reference to the way China interacts with the region, Harris said that U.S. initiatives will “not result in insurmountable debt.”

Harris also spoke of the shared desire and need to strengthen the “rules-based” order in the Pacific, saying the post-1945 world order has delivered “peace and stability to the Pacific for more than 75 years.” Here Harris hit the great reef that lies beneath the surface of U.S. relations with the region: a deficiency of knowledge about the Pacific.

From a U.S. perspective, the statement is correct. U.S. boots have not been on the ground, engaged in conflict, in the Pacific Islands since 1945. But it is far from the case from a Pacific perspective. Conflict and instability have profoundly reshaped the region over the past 75 years. There was the Bougainville independence war with Papua New Guinea, which raged over a decade (1988-1998). Some 20,000 people perished due to the conflict and the blockading of vital supplies from the island. The resolution of that conflict has put the Autonomous Province of Bougainville on course to becoming the newest independent state in the region. Its current president, Ishmael Toroama, is a former commander of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army.

New Caledonia experienced a brutal war of independence against French rule in the 1980s that continues to resonate through to the recent third referendum held in December 2021, which controversially retained the political status quo of the territory within France.

There’s the ongoing conflict between West Papua and Indonesia. The contest with China and the need for strong relationships with Indonesia do not bode well for the human rights abuse investigations the Pacific Islands Forum have long sought with regard to West Papua.

Then there’s the Solomon Islands with its history of internal conflict that directly impacted the signing of the security agreement with China in April 2022.

In a week when the world is grappling with the assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, it should be recalled that the president of Palau, Haruo Remeliik, was assassinated in 1985. Remeliik’s position on the U.S. compact was cited as a motive for his killing.

To this list, numerous other examples could be added: French nuclear testing in French Polynesia that was conducted until 1995 or that Fijian Prime Minister Bainimarama first came to power via a military coup, one of four Fiji has had since independence in 1970. Then there’s the current demonstration of conflict and instability in Papua New Guinea during its national elections.

The Pacific region needs greater investment and support. The U.S. return to the Pacific could yield great benefit. But that return has to be done right, and it should start with an upscaling of America’s Pacific literacy. Although U.S. universities lead the world in many fields, on the Pacific they trail far behind. U.S. universities and programs live and die by endowments and the Pacific region, given its acute and widespread needs, has never been flush with cash for this purpose.

Few Americans get any education about the Pacific and this gap in American knowledge perpetuates to all levels of education. That being said, some public institutions like Chicago’s Field Museum are working on reducing this knowledge gap. The Field Museum holds a large Pacific collection and has worked with the Enid, Oklahoma Marshallese community on raising public awareness of U.S. history with the Republic of the Marshall Islands, where the U.S. tested 67 atomic weapons.

Such initiatives are great exceptions, a situation that needs to change, and quickly, if this current U.S. turn to the Pacific is to succeed. There is no more important way to “listen” to the Pacific than to devote the time and energy into studying it, researching and engaging on far deeper and consequential levels. 

By contrast, China has expanded its influence in the Pacific since 2006 alongside a substantial investment in studying the Pacific. The United States should take note. Harris cited the strong foundation of the U.S. relationship with the Pacific, but this strong foundation can only be built on if the Pacific finally gets the attention it deserves from and within the U.S.