What to Watch for as the US-Pacific Island Country Summit Begins

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What to Watch for as the US-Pacific Island Country Summit Begins

Behind the hopes and pageantry of the summit, there will be many challenges for both sides to navigate.

What to Watch for as the US-Pacific Island Country Summit Begins

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

Credit: State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain

While huge swaths of the Pacific Islands are suffering from a crippling drought, the region has received a veritable deluge of attention from the U.S. government over the past weeks. This attention is part of the lead-up up the first U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit to be held on September 28 and 29 at the White House. The summit will be both a symbolic occasion denoting both the extent of the U.S.’ history with the Pacific Islands and its recent re-engagement. It will also be a time of hard work and unveiling of a map ahead for U.S. engagement that has been developing at “warp speed” since March of this year. That month, the extent of China’s influence campaign in the Pacific became alarmingly apparent when the prime minister of the Solomon Islands signed a far-reaching security agreement with China, a deal that changed everything.

U.S. government officials have promised big undertakings will be announced at the summit. Leading up to it, there have been numerous opportunities for the U.S. to meet with Pacific leaders and develop plans. On September 13 and 14, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman led U.S. representation at the Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders, held in Honolulu. This regional gathering has met 12 times since its inception in 1980. This year, the U.S. assured the region that it had Washington’s attention going forward and they also highlighted the extent of U.S. engagement in the region in an effort to blunt the narrative that the U.S. has been largely absent. There have been numerous long-standing ways the U.S. has engaged with the Pacific, but they have been unevenly distributed and U.S. efforts have not kept pace with those of China. Hence the huge upscaling of U.S. efforts in 2022.

After the leaders’ meeting in Honolulu, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) provided additional opportunities for the U.S. to develop its Pacific agenda ahead of the White House summit. One key way key it did so was through building the alliance of nations it will work with on these promised undertakings. When it was announced in June, the Partners in the Blue Pacific was a five-member group of democracies: the U.S., Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. At a meeting on the sidelines of the UNGA, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that two more partners, Germany and Canada, had signaled their “intent to join the Partners in the Blue Pacific.”

Germany has a deep history in the Pacific extending back to the 19th century with its immense plantation economy that spanned Micronesia, New Guinea, and Samoa. Germany’s imperial holdings were stripped from it in 1914 when World War I erupted, and its Pacific empire was divided up. Japan got control of the huge expanse of Micronesian islands, which set the stage for the Pacific War 28 years later. Canada, despite its extensive Pacific coast, does not have a substantial history with the Pacific Islands. Unlike all the other partners, it is free from the heavy colonial baggage the other nations must contend with. However, the Canadian government’s involvement in the Pacific at this point in time comes as Canadian companies are leading deeply divisive deep-sea mining efforts. Navigating this as well as being a positive presence in the region will have its challenges.

Despite the tone of friendship and a shared common cause that have been expressed in the lead-up to the summit, there are numerous controversies simmering beneath the surface. One is that the U.S. did not initially invite all the members of the Pacific Islands Forum to the summit, leaving out the Cook Islands and French Territories. Protests from the forum members, who place great emphasis on regional unity, prompted a reversal but the oversight has fueled skepticism about the U.S. ability to meet the Pacific nations on their terms. Other detractors have claimed that the Partners in the Blue Pacific concept “rides roughshod over established regional processes” and questioned whether the Pacific Islands are “partners or pawns” in U.S. strategy.

More consequential for the summit’s success is the pushback from the Republic of the Marshall Islands about the terms of its Compact of Free Association with the U.S. On September 24, the Marshall Islands announced that it was not sending its compact negotiation team to Washington because the U.S. had not yet guaranteed that the next agreement will contain measures to address the ongoing effects of the U.S. nuclear testing program. Marshall Islands President David Kabua made a powerful representation on the topic, noting that U.S. testing occurred while the Marshall Islands was a U.N. Trust Territory, as well as the urgency of climate action, in his address to the UNGA on September 20.

The U.S. has not been the only partner in the Blue Pacific that has had to answer to Pacific Island peoples in the past days. Japan was called out by President David Panuelo of the Federated States of Micronesia in his address to the UNGA for releasing contaminated water from the Fukushima reactor into the Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile, Vanuatu’s prime minister, Bob Loughman, upped his nation’s innovative climate action, following its advocacy for an advisory opinion on climate change from the International Court of Justice, by laying down a challenge to the world. Loughman called for a non-proliferation treaty of fossil fuels, the first nation to put this challenge to the world. All the partners will find meeting this challenge a tall order, not least the U.S., though its recently passed climate legislation is moving it in the right direction.

Australia’s new government has also passed monumental climate legislation in recent weeks that is going to be transformative and will slowly wean Australia off its fossil fuel dependence and lessen its climate impacts on the Pacific Islands. But this week, Australia has had to answer to the communities of island-dwelling people within its own borders in new ways too. On September 26, a group of Torres Strait Islanders won a landmark decision based on the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that “by failing to act on climate change, the Australian government violated our rights as Torres Strait Islanders.” As a result, the onus is on the current Australian government to compensate Torres Strait Islanders for the deeds of its predecessors.

While Australia will be an observer at this week’s U.S.-Pacific Islands Country Summit, the Torres Strait U.N. decision will shadow the talks as it is another clear indication of a shifting landscape in the long, arduous fight the Pacific has been waging for climate action for decades. Also shadowing the talks will be China. Few people could refute the claim that China’s deep inroads into the Pacific were the trigger for the summit in the first place. Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who gave a fiery defense at the U.N. of his government’s game-changing moves towards China in April this year, will be watched closely. So too will President Taneti Maamau of Kiribati who withdrew his nation from the Pacific Islands Forum in June and is also clearly moving his nation much deeper within China’s fold. Behind the hopes and pageantry of the summit, there will be many challenges to navigate.