On September 28, while Hurricane Ian provided a devastating illustration of the terrible costs of climate change, leaders from 14 Pacific nations and territories gathered in Washington, D.C., for a historic summit in which climate action was top of the agenda. The juxtaposition of Hurricane Ian in Florida, where the death toll and devastation put it in the “upper echelons” of storms to have hit the U.S., and the gathered chorus of Pacific voices, who have been clamoring to be heard for decades about the existential crisis that climate change poses to their island homes, was poignant. As the documentary “Rising Waters” put it in 2000, the Pacific Islands are “the warning system for the whole world to see.” Twenty-two years on, as the rains from Hurricane Ian fell on Washington in the days after the Pacific leaders departed, it is time to take stock of what the summit achieved and what happens next.
The U.S.-Pacific Summit: Main Takeaways
The Pacific region has received a torrent of attention from the U.S. government (and China) in 2022. The summit represented the culmination of the “warp speed” U.S. diplomacy and policy development over the past months. Climate change may have been on the top of the summit agenda because the Pacific Islands Forum has insisted for many years that it is the region’s highest priority, a position the Biden administration fully supports. That said, geopolitics is the main driver of the recent U.S. efforts. As President Joe Biden put it to the summit, “the security of America, quite frankly, and the world depends on your security and the security of the Pacific Islands.”
The summit produced several documents outlining how the United States proposes to bind itself into the Pacific Islands by both creating new programs and structures and using existing ones more deeply. During the summit, the White House released the Pacific Partnership Strategy, The Roadmap for a 21st-Century U.S.-Pacific Island Partnership, and an 11-point Declaration on the U.S.-Pacific Partnership that, in the end, all parties signed; before the conference Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said he would not.
Reportedly, Sogavare’s resistance was due to language in the declaration that obligated signatories to discuss new security relationships with regional impacts with all parties, a thinly veiled reference to the secret China-Solomon Islands security agreement signed in April. This language was subsequently removed in order to clarify that Solomon Islands, and other nations, did not have to “choose sides.”
In the end, China was not mentioned in the “Roadmap” document, though the “slate of ambitious initiatives to meet Pacific priorities” it outlined were all largely aimed at meeting China on numerous levels. The Partnership Strategy, however, articulated the extent of the “geopolitical competition” that is fueling the rapid upscaling of U.S. engagement. It plainly noted the increasing instances of “pressure and economic coercion by the People’s Republic of China, which risks undermining the peace, prosperity and security of the region, and by extension, of the United States.”
The summit has provided much to digest and review. One key summit outcome was that the U.S. recognized the Cook Islands and Niue as sovereign states. This was a big development given that neither country was initially invited to the summit, due to their “realm state” relationship with New Zealand. In recognizing the Cook Islands and Niue, the U.S. demonstrated that it was listening to the regional objections to the fact that not all members of the Pacific Islands Forum were offered a seat at the summit table. To that same end, France’s territories of French Polynesia and New Caledonia were also invited, albeit belatedly, to Washington. For New Caledonia’s pro-independence leader, Louis Mapou, his attendance at the summit was a boost for his cause.
In addition to these four nations and territories, the summit included the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Palau, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Nauru, and Vanuatu. Observing proceedings were the ambassadors of Australia and New Zealand, as well as Henry Puna, the Pacific Islands Forum secretary general. One notable absence from the summit was Kiribati, the nation that withdrew from the Pacific Islands Forum in mid-2022. As journalist Michael Field put it, President Taneti Maamau is continuing with his “hermit kingdom-like behaviour.” This is a brewing situation brimming with geopolitical tensions given Maamau’s increasing moves toward Beijing since Kiribati and China established diplomatic relations in September 2019, the same time that Solomon Islands also suddenly abandoned Taiwan. While Kiribati was not at the table, the U.S. has already announced that it will be establishing an embassy in its capital of Tarawa (currently the U.S. ambassador to Fiji is accredited to Kiribati along with Nauru, Tuvalu, and Tonga). This development cannot come soon enough given the present state of geopolitics, as well as the growing pressures Maamau is placing on his nation’s democratic institutions.
Beneath the inspiring statements of shared history and the fact that “two million U.S. citizens call the Pacific Islands home” there was the question of how the United States was going to make good on its repeated pledges to do better in the Pacific. As always, the devil is in the details, and in this case, also in the dollars. The Roadmap outlined a substantial increase in the amount of money the U.S. is going to direct toward the region: $810 million is being slated for “additional and expanded programs.” Of this, $600 million will go toward programs associated with the South Pacific Tuna Treaty. Since it was first signed in 1987, the “Tuna Treaty” has been the cornerstone of U.S. support for the Pacific through an associated Economic Assistance Agreement with 16 Pacific nations (including Australia and New Zealand) that allows U.S. vessels to fish in their exclusive economic zones and provides for “monitoring, control, and surveillance standards for the region’s fisheries, all of which are vital to deterring illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing,”which costs Pacific nations around $330 million per year in lost revenue.
Importantly, according to a U.S. government official, this $810 million does not include funds, currently under negotiation, that would be directed toward the three Compact of Free Association States (COFA) – the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), the Republic of Palau, and the Federated States of Micronesia. Funding for these COFA states account for the lion’s share, by a vast degree, of all the money the U.S. has directed to the Pacific region over the 40 years since the COFA agreements were first signed in the mid-1980s. The Roadmap stated that the U.S. has spent over $1.5 billion in the Pacific over the past decade, but this includes funding COFA states, according to the government official, an inclusion that greatly skews the funding picture.
While the three COFA agreements that are currently being renegotiated are the “bedrock of U.S.-Pacific cooperation for nearly four decades,” and make up such a large part of U.S. Pacific spending, the three Pacific parties expressed their frustration before the summit began that these efforts still fall short. Also, the RMI halted talks on a COFA renewal because the United States had not guaranteed ahead of the summit that costly nuclear legacy funding would be included in the next COFA agreement. Though the Roadmap produced at the summit predicted the signing of these agreements by the end of 2022, progress to that end may not be smooth.
As expected, much U.S. attention was given to the programs addressing the climate crisis, clean energy, and sustainable infrastructure. The U.S. pledged “over $130 million” to that end and will also “leverage an additional $400 million in private financing.” There was also money for post-COVID-19 economic recovery (more than $50 million), health and security cooperation, maritime protection, and digital connectivity ($3.5 million over five years across the region). This last item needs to be contextualized with Huawei’s immense upcoming project to install mobile towers in Solomon Islands. As journalist Georgina Kekea notes, this is being funded by a $100 million loan from China that completely eclipses what the U.S. has put on the table for the region. This line item alone points to an underlying problem of the U.S. package: It does not come close to matching China’s investment in the Pacific Islands over the past 15 years. However, American money does not come with the onerous debt obligations much of the Chinese money does.
Adding to the dollar-related questions and complexities of the summit is the reality that much of the promised money must go through a convoluted congressional approval process. In an effort to accelerate this process, the Biden administration has already “reprogrammed” a “frozen” $130 million approved for Egypt toward the Pacific instead. In terms of approving additional funds, the current bipartisan support for this Pacific initiative bodes well, but with mid-term elections due in November, a changed congressional landscape may impact the final numbers. Key to success here is making a compelling case to the American public and therefore its representatives for supporting the Pacific Islands.
American literacy about the islands is low. Going forward this presents a significant problem for upscaled regional engagement, a situation that seems to have gotten some recognition in the rapidly devised summit deliverables. A “fact sheet” issued by the White House during the summit noted that the government would work to strengthen people-to-people ties by boosting the Peace Corps presence in Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, and Vanuatu as well as “offering enhanced educational experiences through student and professional exchange, enhanced curriculum, and the establishment of Pacific Studies programs in the United States,” though this latter initiative did not appear in the subsequent Roadmap that outlined funding allocations.
So how has the summit been received in the Pacific? The regional media reception has been relatively muted. Meg Taylor and Soli Middleby advocate for a substantial overhaul of assistance delivery and U.S. methods for engagement in the wake of the summit, while offering a sobering regional perspective on geostrategic competition for the United States. In contrast, academic Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, sees an overall positive view of U.S. overtures and its increased assistance. However, Kabutaulaka also cautions that much of the funding is not yet approved. The Guam Daily Post also makes this point and puts the U.S. commitments to the Pacific in perspective to its commitments elsewhere. The proposed funding amounts to “5.4% of the $15 billion granted to Ukraine this year to help defend against invasion and occupation of its cities and towns by Russia,” it wrote.
A Long History of Engagement and Disengagement
Caution about the relative scale of commitment compared to China and other U.S. priority areas, and whether the pledges will actualize, hits on historic problems the U.S. has encountered whenever it attempted to up its engagement with the Pacific. This has happened multiple times since the 1980s. In the mid-1980s, geostrategic competition with the Soviet Union prompted the United States to negotiate the three COFA agreements and the Tuna Treaty. The triennial Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders (PICL) began meeting in Honolulu in 1980. In 1990, then-U.S. President George H. W. Bush, who had a long personal history with the region dating back to his war service, attended the PICL. He spoke warmly of the Pacific islands “as an aquatic continent” and “America’s place in the extended family of Pacific nations.”
Over the next 17 years, U.S. engagement in the region faltered to the point that the Department of State declared 2007 “the year of the Pacific” because “it is crucial to keep this vast, strategic region and its mostly small, sometimes struggling states firmly on our side.” U.S. government initiatives were intended “to reverse any perception that the U.S. had withdrawn from the Pacific.” A new geostrategic contest was now in play, with scholar Kevin Stringer asking at the time if “Pacific Island Microstates” were “pawns or players in Pacific Rim Diplomacy.” The struggle for influence between China and Taiwan and “fishing issues with Japan” were the catalysts for this new competition, Stringer said.
The “year of the Pacific” involved devising “a whole of government approach… to expand our activities in the region,” in language closely resembling that used by U.S. officials in 2022. This involved modest funding pledges due to extensive budget cuts, with the U.S. spending less than $190 million in the region in 2006, though “about $150 million was comprised of grants from the United States to Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau, under the compacts of free association.” As Congressman Eni Faleomavaega of American Samoa noted at the time, while the U.S. was spending “$10 billion a month in the War in Iraq” the comparatively minuscule funding gave the U.S. little traction in the Pacific Region.
As part of the State Department effort, the PICL was held in Washington, D.C. in May 2007. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was the highest-ranking attendee; President George W. Bush did not attend, a move Faleomavaega described as “discourteous.”
Despite the good intentions and efforts of State Department officials 15 years ago, the 2007 U.S. re-engagement with the Pacific Islands again faltered. Why? There were the drastic impacts of the Global Financial Crisis from 2008 and the ongoing drain on U.S. coffers from Middle East conflicts. In the Pacific, the reasons were multifaceted. According to Ambassador C. Steven McGann, who represented the U.S. as head of mission in Fiji, Nauru, Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Tonga from 2008 to 2011, the “U.S. did not anticipate that the competition between Beijing and Taipei for diplomatic recognition would escalate so quickly. China was able to aggressively put resources into the region, particularly as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, faster than the U.S. executive and legislative branches could respond.” Added to this was climate change and the fact that “key issues such as fisheries protection, economic diversification, migration, law enforcement, gender-based violence, and healthcare infrastructure were not seen as regional instability indicators,” McGann said. On top of all of these factors has been the escalation of the military dimension, which rapidly expanded from the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea into the South Pacific with this year’s China-Solomon Islands security deal.
Can the U.S. Pacific Push Succeed?
So is the 2022 U.S. Pacific push going to be different? One cause for optimism is that the United States is joining forces with Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom through the Partners in the Blue Pacific initiative, announced in June. Since the U.N. General Assembly last month, Germany and Canada have also stated their intention to join. While the pooling of resources will be a great boost to U.S. aims, the question remains about how these complex efforts will be coordinated in the notoriously complicated setting for delivery of services the Pacific Islands entails. There is a need for Pacific-based and Pacific-led entities to orchestrate these complex challenges if they are going to work and be sustained over the long-term.
The Pacific Partners Strategy and the Partners in the Blue Pacific initiative can also only work if U.S. and Pacific Islands priorities remain aligned, as they currently are with the Biden administration’s emphasis on climate action. The considerable variable is what happens when the Republican Party assumes control of one or all of the branches of government again. This could happen as early as November 8, with the mid-term elections that could deliver a Republican majority in the House of Representatives and Senate. While many Republicans strongly support the Pacific Islands in Congress, chief among them Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen of American Samoa, the stated party position on climate change is at great odds with that of the Pacific.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the red state of Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis is shaping up to be a leading contender for the Republican presidential candidate in 2024. DeSantis recently described global warming concerns as “left-wing stuff” and has eschewed investing in green technologies and energy. This from the leader of a state currently reeling from Hurricane Ian, which has killed more than 100 people and inflicted $50 billion in damages – another reminder that, as climate tolls mount, the $810 million the U.S. is offering the Pacific Islands will not stretch very far.
Given the utmost importance of the Pacific Islands to U.S. security, with both political parties in agreement on this point, and given that robust climate action is not negotiable for the Pacific Islands, it is very conceivable that the Republican Party will have to accept that climate action is not “left-wing stuff” if it wants to continue to advance U.S. relations with the Pacific region. A drastically changing climate does not pick sides in the China-U.S. Pacific geostrategic contest either.
As Samoa’s Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa has said, the international community must come together to tackle climate change – an implicit message to both the U.S. and China. The Pacific Islands are uniquely placed to draw the two sides back to the negotiating table since climate talks were suspended in August, and all Pacific parties should use the heightened attention from the United States and China to this vital end. The challenge for the U.S. is to not only meet the challenge of working with China but to also stay the course with its Pacific Islands ambitions and not get blown off track as it has done, at great cost, in the recent past.