On the same day that Hurricane Ian bore down on Florida, one could say Hurricane Mannaseh was hitting Washington as the White House U.S.-Pacific Islands Country Summit began on September 28. The evening before talks began, a leak to the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) unveiled the tightly concealed ambitions for the summit and Solomon Islands Prime Minister Mannaseh Sogavare’s efforts to derail them.
The ABC reported that the White House hopes Pacific Islands nations gathering in Washington for the inaugural summit will sign an 11-point plan. This plan is “similar” to the document China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi hoped the same nations and territories would sign on to in May when he conducted a barnstorming tour through the Pacific. (The four Pacific nations that continue to recognize Taiwan were excluded from these efforts.) Wang aimed to outplay the U.S. and its allies in the geostrategic contest that began in earnest when Sogavare signed a secret security agreement with China in April. Ahead of a meeting in Suva, when Wang hoped the member-states of the Pacific Islands Forum would sign onto to become China-Pacific Island Countries, President David Panuleo of the Federated States of Micronesia wrote an impassioned letter to his counterparts imploring them to not sign onto the deal, which scuttled it as the forum members had undertaken to act collectively.
Fast forward to late September 2022, and Sogavare has returned fire by writing to his colleagues to let them know he would not be signing onto the U.S. agreement. His reasons for this action were that the agreement lacked consensus and that Solomon Islands needed to “reflect on the proposal, and that the declaration would have to be considered by its national parliament.” The ironies here are many, not least being that the details of Sogavare’s deal with China remain secret, and it was never debated in the parliament. Solomon Islands opposition leader Matthew Wale struck back, saying Sogavare’s actions showed a “strange inconsistency” that is “betraying his vassal role in the region.” Since then, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken hinted there may yet be a consensus, even with Sogavare.
It is no surprise that Sogavare is the summit spoiler. Throughout 2022, he has consistently rattled the U.S. and resisted their overtures aimed at mending relations. The one exception to this pattern was when the U.S. Mercy hospital ship docked in Honiara in August. This humanitarian assistance was welcomed by Sogavare, as it suited his domestic political ambitions. Until recently, it was an open question whether Sogavare would even attend the summit in Washington after he delivered a predictably fiery speech at the United Nations General Assembly, but he is definitely making his presence felt and will continue to do so through the two-day program.
The summit schedule is a busy one, involving over 11 U.S. government departments and agencies that deal with environmental, fishing, and development missions. The Pacific delegations will be taken around Washington with sirens and motorcades to meet with department secretaries and on Thursday a lunch hosted by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, where congressional members from both houses and political parties will attend. The support of Republicans is critical to building Pacific leaders’ confidence in U.S. policies, given that changes in political leadership are likely at some stage in the not-too-distant future.
Following the Pelosi-hosted lunch, the leaders will meet with President Joe Biden, where he will reiterate the importance of the Pacific to the U.S. and restate that the U.S. is committed to assisting with “climate change, pandemic response, economic recovery and maritime security.” Following this final summit meeting (and, no doubt, the all-important group photograph) and the release of a declaration — the document Sogavare has said he will not sign — the leaders will be hosted at a White House dinner.
Putting more flesh on the rhetorical bones is the Pacific Partnership Strategy, which was released halfway through the summit, as were the all-important dollar signs the U.S. will attach to the Pacific. The headline the Biden administration is hoping for is that $810 million in new spending is going to be allocated to the Pacific. This is in addition to $1.5 billion spent over the past decade.
The strategy strikes the right tone and maps an array of existing and recalibrated U.S. programs onto the Pacific Island Forum’s 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent. As well as citing climate change and the extreme burdens of economies crushed by the pandemic, the U.S. Pacific Partnership Strategy explicitly names China as one of the “urgent challenges” the Pacific faces. This explicit centering of China is new for the numerous Pacific-focused U.S. government documents that have been released ahead of the summit in recent weeks.
The strategy cites the centrality of the 1980s-era architecture of the three Compacts of Free Association as central planks of the U.S. strategy, but as has recently come to light, the Marshall Islands and Palau have both expressed frustration at how these negotiations are progressing with the Marshall Islands halting talks last week. The strategic statement notes that “the United States is committed to addressing the scars of war across the Pacific region,” yet there is no mention of addressing the nuclear legacy that is at the center of the Marshall Islands’ frustration with the COFA talks. This is a very costly ticket item in itself. The problem with money led the three COFA leaders to write to Kurt Campbell on September 26, alerting him to the inadequacy of the proposed funding of the new agreements, which they said will shadow the success of the summit.
While $810 million sounds like a substantial sum, if it is divided amongst the 15 nations and territories (14 of which are at the summit, Kiribati being the no-show) that amounts to just over half a million dollars each, though the funds will be distributed unevenly through the region.
To cite just one example, in its “Roadmap for a 21st-Century US-Pacific Island Partnership,” the U.S. signaled it would spend “up to $3.5 million over five years to support the digital transformation of Pacific Islands Countries.” Such commitments need to be viewed against China’s $66 million financing of a Huawei network in Solomon Islands alone.
The success of the U.S. strategy is going to be very dependent on investment from other nations. The Pacific Partnership Strategy also places emphasis on U.S. Blue Pacific Partners and telegraphs that South Korea, the European Union, India, and France may join forces to coordinate efforts of “climate resilience and adaptation, education and employment opportunities, access to financing and protection of maritime domains and livelihoods.”
The final day of the summit will see more announcements, but as these strategies are fast evolving and reacting to Pacific input, as they must be, these statements will not be the last word. Warm words will be very welcome, but the Pacific want to see the dollars that match the challenges ahead.