As with the inaugural summit last year, the second U.S.-Pacific Islands summit in Washington, D.C., featured a raft of initiatives with attached dollar signs and U.S. government involvement from President Joe Biden down. The message of this summit, in line with Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s message to the Pacific Islands Forum leaders in May, is that the U.S. is delivering — and fast. There was a stronger showing of Pacific leadership than in 2022, a sign of how receptive the region is to what the U.S. is offering.
On the dollars, the White House highlighted that more funding was on offer. This is in addition to the $810 million in new assistance from last year’s summit and $7.2 billion in “new funding and programs for the Pacific Islands region” that Blinken discussed in May 2023 when he was in Port Moresby to speak with Pacific Islands Forum leaders in the place of Biden who was detained in Washington by domestic politics. This week Biden announced “a new slate of activities” that includes a further request to Congress for “nearly $200 million” for the Pacific.
The areas of delivery cover new embassies, with Port Villa, Vanuatu now added to the expanded U.S. diplomatic footprint that has seen embassies open in Honiara, Solomon Islands, and Nukualofa, Tonga in 2023.
These two new embassies do not yet offer consular services, meaning that visa applications still require travel to Papua New Guinea and Fiji, respectively. Getting visas to the U.S. remains an expensive and cumbersome exercise for the many Tongans, and fewer Solomon Islanders, wanting to enter the United States. The summit read-out noted the “intention” to equip these embassies, and the one in Vanuatu slated to open in 2024, with consular capabilities, though no timeline on this was given for this to happen.
Beyond an expanded diplomatic footprint, the summit emphasized other diverse areas in which the U.S. is also making good on its promises. These include increasing maritime security resources, cybersecurity, and deepening economic partnerships and development (including a microfinance facility aimed at women-owned enterprises). There is also a suite of initiatives to build, rebuild, and reinforce Pacific infrastructure, an effort where the United States will work with Blue Pacific Partners like Australia and Japan.
There was additional money to address the continuing lethal legacies of World War II, the unexploded ordnances (UXO) that impact Solomon Islands, Fiji, the Republic of Marshall Islands (RMI), Palau, and Papua New Guinea. While addressing the ongoing consequences of the past, the U.S. commitments at the summit will also address the future in the form of expanded educational opportunities for Pacific youth and mid-career leaders.
No issue is more serious for the Pacific’s future than the climate crisis. On this, the U.S. laid out 11 different ways it intends to ameliorate the impacts of climate change. These initiatives ranged from strengthening disaster preparedness to more climate financing. For the nation of Tuvalu, and other nations at the frontline of rising seas, Biden announced that “sea-level rise driven by human-induced climate change should not cause any country to lose its statehood or its membership of the United Nations, its specialized agencies or other international organizations.”
Further to this question of territorial sovereignty and rising seas, the summit also stated U.S. support for Pacific Island nations to participate in research centers that examine the vexed questions of maritime boundaries so they can be better prepared with the complex and evolving legal questions that lie on the horizon. These were major developments and a sign of the U.S. listening to Pacific concerns and acting on them.
The other big deliverable from this summit was the formal recognition of Niue and the Cook Islands as independent sovereign states. Both states are “freely associated” with New Zealand. According to Niuean Premier Dalton Tagelagi, “the establishment of diplomatic relations with the United States of America is significant. We are hopeful that this official step in our partnership, will provide great opportunities.” These expanded opportunities do not “impact our relationship with New Zealand in any way,” he added, but will allow Niue to access resources “we wouldn’t have been able to access otherwise.”
In particular, Niue (like almost every Pacific nation) is susceptible to severe cyclones. Tagelagi said in an interview that “we need assistance with our adaptation and mitigation efforts as we work towards climate proofing our homes and relocating key infrastructure inland and away from the coast.” He said that U.S. funds that will now be available to Niue, and the Cook Islands, will greatly assist in these efforts.
Kiribati’s President Taneti Maamau, who did not attend last year’s conference due to his nation’s withdrawal from the Pacific Islands Forum, will go home this year with a substantial deal signed between his government and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) worth $29.1 million. The agreement will advance Kiribati’s economic growth by partnering with the International Labor Organization and the American Councils for International Education. The summit readout noted that this agreement follows one inked with the MCC and the government of Solomon Islands worth $20 million.
Despite being the recipient of much attention and resources at last year’s summit, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare did not attend this year. His absence was a snub to the U.S. government, which he perceives as having offered too much support for his vocal political opponent, Daniel Suidani, the ousted premier of the most populous island in the Solomons, Malaita.
While Sogavare was a conspicuous absence, Solomons Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele did attend, and struck a less confrontational tone by welcoming U.S. assistance in the form of the Mercy hospital ship. The Mercy is going to dock in Honiara again (it had a very successful visit in 2022) during the Pacific Games from November 19 to December 2. So, while Sogavare is publicly rebuffing U.S. overtures, relations are ongoing. All of which is good news.
Also not present in Washington was Vanuatu Prime Minister Sato Kilman owing to a political situation back home. Like Solomon Islands, Vanuatu had ministerial representation.
So how did Pacific leaders’ rate summit’s success? President Surangel Whipps of the Republic of Palau said in an interview that Biden has “to be given credit” for making the time (despite considerable political pressures) to be an engaged presence at the summit that showcased the work his administration has done strengthening U.S. engagement with the Pacific. Whipps described the summit as akin to a “family gathering” and noted that the U.S. is “clearly committed,” a commitment that goes beyond the White House to encompass deep bipartisan support.
Whipps experienced this firsthand as he met with both Democrat and Republican leadership ahead of the congressional approval of the Compacts of Free Association (COFA) that expire on September 30, 2023. Palau signed their renewed agreement with the U.S. in May. The Federated States of Micronesia also concluded their negotiations in May, while the Republic of the Marshall Islands’ negotiations are ongoing.
The COFA agreements look likely to be caught up in the looming government shutdown at the end of this fiscal year (September 30). Biden’s special envoy for the COFA negotiations, Ambassador Joseph Yun, said that “contingencies” would be put in place in the event this happened to ensure funds and services continued in the three COFA states.
Whipps also discussed the geopolitical challenges that loomed over the summit. China’s activities in the Pacific catalyzed the United States’ hugely upscaled engagements in the Pacific in early 2022 and Beijing is never far beneath the surface of U.S. thinking. Due to Palau’s geographic position and foreign policy, its perspective on China is distinct in the region. Not only does Palau not recognize the People’s Republic of China, but it is a nation already feeling the encroachment of China into its EEZ in ways that mirror China’s activities in Palau’s neighbor, the Philippines, which have received much U.S. press in recent days.
In the case of Palau, China is mapping undersea ridges and assigning names, and it is soon expected to make claims to these subterraneous features. All of these developments are a matter of urgency for Palau. The United States is a security guarantor for Palau and the rest of the Pacific, and so Whipps sees an alignment of U.S. geostrategic concerns and those of Pacific Islands Forum members from his nation’s point of view.
The next U.S.-Pacific summit will be in 2025. In the meantime, the next U.S. presidential election will take place. Underneath the positive feelings about this summit there is also concern about the future of the Biden administration’s Pacific agenda should there be a change in the administration. What would a Republican administration’s position be on the climate crisis, which is of such paramount importance to the Pacific? Would all the progress that has been made since early 2022 in binding the U.S. into the region in a multiplicity of ways be squandered?
These questions cannot be answered yet, but this summit worked hard to anchor U.S. engagement in a web of relationships and programs that might withstand changed political winds in Washington as well as ongoing challenges in the islands compounded by anticipated, but very unwelcome, elevated security pressures.