Foreign Affairs
Strengthening US–Pacific Islands Relations

The US is concerned about the geopolitical complications posed by China’s expanding presence in the Pacific over the past decade. To ensure meaningful commitment to the region, Washington must prioritize gaining the trust of Pacific Island countries, as they play a pivotal role in the Indo-Pacific Strategy and are crucial for US security and prosperity.

The Pacific Islands are a strategic nexus between Asia, Australia, and the US, crucial for trade, maritime security, and regional ties. However, cooperation with the Pacific may be hindered by the Pacific Islands’ lack of confidence in the US, as US engagement in the region is often perceived as a reaction to China’s Pacific expansion.

China has become increasingly involved in the Pacific through diplomatic strategies and aid programs, with assistance to the Pacific Islands now surpassing that of the US. The China-Solomon Islands security pact, signed in April 2022, underscores the potential for a Chinese naval base in the South Pacific. The Biden administration’s Pacific Partnership Strategy, the first US strategy document dedicated to the Pacific Islands, emphasizes transnational issues without explicitly mentioning China.

Washington’s commitment to the South Pacific is crucial for its full potential, but it must be proven through practical action. The Biden administration proposed US$7 billion in funding over the next 20 years to complete the Compacts of Free Association (COFA) negotiations, but the promised aid has yet to reach the Pacific Islands. The Pacific Partnership Strategy’s long-term viability may be in doubt due to Washington’s failure to fulfil its commitments due to the expiration of COFA agreements in 2023.

The Pacific Islands’ priority is combating climate change, as demonstrated by the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent policy framework. The 2022 Supreme Court decision limiting the US Environmental Protection Agency’s emissions control power and the US rejection of the 2023 United Nations resolution on climate obligations have raised doubts about Washington’s climate commitment. The US must take bolder steps on climate change to build trust and demonstrate genuine interest in helping the Pacific Islands combat existential threats.

Addressing war remnants is pivotal for trust-building and enhancing partnerships across the Pacific Islands. The US-Vietnam post-war reconciliation demonstrates that efforts to clean up war remnants can significantly enhance strategic trust. By addressing these war legacies, the US can build trust and enhance partnerships across the Pacific Islands.

The US should gain the trust of Pacific Islander (PIF) leaders to balance China’s expansion. Washington should view competition with China as a potential benefit from cooperation with the Pacific Islands. To counter Beijing’s presence, Washington should cultivate genuine relationships based on understanding the islands’ strategic interests, climate vulnerabilities, and historical sensitivities. It should also manage independently of rivalry with Beijing to ensure meaningful engagement with the Pacific Islands. This approach will help counterbalance Beijing’s presence in the region.

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