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China, US Woo Pacific Island Nations

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China, US Woo Pacific Island Nations

The Pacific Islands states have rejected China’s overreach. But are Washington’s efforts any more attractive?

China, US Woo Pacific Island Nations

Leaders of Pacific Islands Forum member states pose for a group photo following the PIF Meeting, Suva, Fiji, July 15, 2022.

Credit: Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat

In what looks like an effort to counter China’s increasing efforts to exert influence among the island nations of the Pacific, in July the United States announced a series of initiatives to “deepen U.S. partnership with the region” while at the same time committing “to deliver concrete results for Pacific people.”

Of the seven commitments that the U.S. made to Pacific Islands Forum leaders, however, it is notable that four of the initiatives are fundamentally aid programs, while two expand diplomatic presence in the region. The final commitment promises inclusion of the Pacific Islands into the Indo-Pacific strategy of the United States, giving the islands their own focus and priorities. That implies that the United States has to date given little specific attention to the Pacific Islands, begging the question of why.

Based on recent comments, the United States’ rejuvenated interest in supporting proud but often vulnerable nations in the Pacific is going to continue to be anchored to aid, diplomatic maneuvers, and the bureaucracy of foreign policy. In the meantime, those islands are being presented with significant trade and investment opportunities by China – opportunities that, if the islands finally sign up for them, give Beijing the ability to impact island nations’ policies and partnership preferences. More importantly, from the Pacific Islands’ perspective, China offers nations financial means for real economic growth and development, albeit tied to China and the potential loss of freedoms that could incur.

It is to be noted that for now, Pacific nations have resisted China’s efforts to create a bloc of “China-Pacific Islands” countries, as Patricia O’Brien detailed in her June 2022 article for The Diplomat. O’Brien indicated that China’s pressure on the island nations backfired and produced instead “a very different Pacific paradigm shift than the one China intended. In all the machinations, Pacific Island nations have strenuously resisted being cast as pawns in this game.”

The greater irony may be that the U.S. push to “assist” the island nations of the Pacific is seen by some in the region as equally unwelcome as China’s overtures.

Ostensibly delivering if not actually heading the Biden administration’s package of programs and promises to the small but strategic nations of the South Pacific, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris attended the July 12 meeting of leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum through a virtual platform, at the invitation of Fiji’s Prime Minister of Fiji Frank Bainimarama.

The United States is not a member of the PIF, and Harris’ virtual attendance alone sparked some controversy as other non-members had been purposefully excluded. Harris was only invited to give an address to the fisheries meeting. China was reportedly “not allowed to hold an online meeting” with Pacific Island Forum leaders during the week of the meeting.

According to the White House, the United States already provides $350 million in assistance aid annually to the island nations of the Pacific. Harris outlined four new aid assistance programs to bolster existing contributions.

First is a promised three-fold increase in the amount of funding the United States will provide for “economic development and ocean resilience,” with the South Pacific Tuna Treaty as the “cornerstone” of that program. The treaty, according to the White House, allows U.S. fishing fleets to access the Pacific, creating local jobs and combatting “illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.”

The White House cannot provide that money on its own, of course, and must ask the U.S. Congress to sign on and appropriate the funds. If approved, aid would increase to $60 million a year for 10 years.

The second initiative designed to bring the Pacific Island nations closer into the U.S. fold is the re-establishment of a regional mission of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Suva, Fiji. Again, the emphasis is on aid, not investment.

Third, the U.S. wants to bring the Peace Corps back to the Pacific. But one wonders, has anyone asked the Pacific Islands whether they want the Peace Corps back?

To China’s credit, it never allowed the Peace Corps in for anything other than English language teaching, primarily in its western provinces. Instead, China invited capital investments. With that, of course, came a massive transfer of technology to China, part of Beijing’s strategic development plan from the beginning. China, often ruthless in its practices, nonetheless got this right: A country does not develop through charity. It develops and becomes strong by the production of goods and services, not by the seduction – and embarrassment – of aid and welfare.

The fourth and final financial plank of Harris’ announcement revolves around the “Partners in the Blue Pacific” (PBP) program, a “new coordination mechanism” among Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States to “support” Pacific priorities and regionalism, having already provided “a combined $2.1 billion in development assistance for the region.”

In all of these programs, aid – not economic development – takes front and center stage in the U.S. initiative to build stronger ties with the Pacific. That stands in contrast to China, which at least offers some trade and investment opportunities as well as aid. Against that backdrop, the choice of the Pacific Islands to spurn China’s efforts to corral them into agreements that eventually would likely compromise the freedoms and traditions of the island states is farsighted and courageous.

The Biden administration also announced that it will “commence discussions” with Tonga to open a U.S. embassy there. At the same time, in two classic cases of “closing the barn door after the horse has bolted,” the U.S. proudly declared that it is “on track” to reopen the U.S. embassy in Solomon Islands and that it is also in discussions to open an embassy in Kiribati. Both states switched their recognition from Taiwan to China in September 2019 and ties with Beijing have developed at a rapid clip ever since.

The Solomons signed a security agreement with China in April 2022 that includes a clause allowing China to “make ship visits to, carry out logistical replacement in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands,” as well as send Chinese forces to the country to “protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects.” Unsurprisingly, many see this as a preamble to the establishment of a permanent Chinese naval base.  The U.S. plan to open an embassy in the Solomons seems reactive and after the fact.

Kiribati, meanwhile, has now withdrawn from the Pacific Islands Forum and has signed over 10 deals with China this year. There are worries that China may fund the renovation of an airstrip on the tiny Kiribati island of Kanton, which could potentially have strategic military importance for any military able to control it.

Rounding out the diplomatic initiatives, the United States also appointed its first U.S. envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum.

The reaction to seemingly renewed U.S. emphasis on the Pacific Islands has, in some quarters, been similar to the reaction over China’s efforts.

Writing in the Devpolicy Blog of  the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific at The Australian National University, authors Greg Fry, Tarcisius Kabutaulaka and Terence Wesley-Smith argue that “part of the Biden administration’s efforts to ‘step up its game’ in the region,” the Partners in Blue Pacific (PBP) initiative, is “deceptive, controlling and hypocritical.”

They write, “Its high-sounding rhetoric of partnership and cooperation, claimed respect for Pacific agendas, as well as reference to appropriate consultation with Pacific leaders, hides deeper geopolitical purpose. It proceeds in much the same way as China’s recent attempt to establish a multilateral ‘Common Development Vision’, delivering a fait accompli while ignoring established regional processes of decision-making.”

Strong stuff given that Australia itself is one of the major members of the Pacific Islands Forum.

China’s regional agreement was rejected by Pacific Island states “because it arrived prepared, with no consultation with Pacific leaders.” But it seems the United States may be similarly guilty of presenting prepared packages rather than asking Pacific leaders what their countries want or need.

Ultimately, the Chinese and the Biden administration’s starkly geopolitical maneuvers among the island nations of the Pacific appear to many in those nations to be self-serving, and more of the same treatment to which they have become accustomed over the decades. Perhaps nothing more reflects that reality than the Forum’s Communique of the 51st Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting, in which no mention is made of China or Harris at all.