The Pacific Island region has emerged as an important area of geopolitical disputes. The growing focus on the Indo-Pacific by the United States (US), China’s engagement with the Pacific Island Countries (PICs), growing US-China competition, and the adverse effects of climate change have attracted attention to the Pacific Island Region.
The growing engagement between the PIC and China has led the US to realize that “the Pacific Islands are not given the diplomatic attention and support that [they] deserve.” To plug this gap in US policy, President Biden became the first US President to address the Pacific Islands Forum in 2021, Secretary of State Blinken visited Fiji in 2022 where he launched the Indo-Pacific Strategy and Announced that the US would reopen its embassy in the Solomon Islands, which had been closed since 1993.
In her speech at the Pacific Island Forum 2022, Vice President Kamala Harris laid out a US policy framework under which the US will deepen its engagement with the region in the coming years. In an effort to improve the situation, the US announced that it would open two new embassies in the region, in Tonga and Kiribati respectively. The decision to open embassies in Tonga and Kiribati is seen as an attempt to counter the growing Chinese diplomatic presence in the region by opening its embassy in Kiribati.
It is also significant because Kiribati has withdrawn from the PIF, saying the forum did not pay enough attention to the concerns of Micronesian countries such as Kiribati. While its decision has been accepted, the US will have to ensure that the PIC is actively involved in the larger Indo-Pacific strategic goals beyond its diplomatic presence. The US also announced the appointment of its first envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum and said its Peace Corps volunteers would be redeployed to the region. USAID will resume its regional mission in Fiji. In his speech at the Forum’s Leaders Annual Meeting (2022), Vice President Harris said the Biden administration will ask the US Congress to increase US funding for economic development and ocean resilience for the Pacific Islands from the current US$21 million to US$60 million over the next ten years. Million US dollars.
For the US to formulate an effective policy and engage with the PIC, it must first acknowledge and then address the challenges posed by China’s presence in the Pacific Islands region. Second, as with its policies towards the North Pacific, the US should outline its policy objectives for the South Pacific region and how to achieve its goals. The Biden Administration committed to releasing the first US National Strategy for the Pacific Islands. The strategy document could help unify US policy approaches to the North and South Pacific and outline the role of the PIC in the US Indo-Pacific strategy. The North Pacific is geographically closer and the US has coordinated more with the countries here.
Australia, a US coalition partner, is the primary security provider for countries in the South Pacific. The United States is working in close coordination with its partners in the region to ensure security and stability in the region. The strategy document may also help identify convergences between the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy and the Pacific Island Forum’s 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent. Third, the United States needs to work with its allies Australia and New Zealand to ensure that resources made available to the Pacific Islands meet the development needs of countries in the region. Both Australia and New Zealand are part of several regional groupings and work closely with the PIC for a collective regional response to economic growth, stability and security, sustainable development and other important issues. They can bridge the policy gap between the PIC and the US.
To address the ongoing geopolitical turmoil in the Pacific, the US will need to increase its presence in the region. The US has announced that it will open new embassies in Kiribati and Tonga and also appoint the first US envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum. It is much needed to increase US diplomatic presence in the region. In addition, naval exercises and patrolling by the Coast Guard will also help showcase the US presence in the region. In response to a request made by the Solomon Islands, The U.S. Coast Guard Oliver Henry patrolled the Solomon Islands’ EEZ in the 2022 ‘ Exclusive Economic Zone.
The US Coast Guard is an integral part of the US- Indo-Pacific strategy and has close institutional ties with the law enforcement and security organizations of the PIC. The US Coast Guard regularly deploys its ships to the Pacific Island region in support of Operation Blue-Pacific. With the marine sector, the mainstay of economic development and the main source of food for PICs, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is a major concern.
The US Coast Guard helps prevent such activities. It also provides a link to China, whose fishing vessels are not considered very serious and is known to be fishing in other countries. Tackling emerging challenges ranging from the climate crisis to infrastructure needs requires cross-border cooperation. Towards this, the US has launched the Partners in the Blue Pacific (PBP) initiative (along with Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom) in June 2022.
The PBP is dedicated to supporting the priorities of Pacific nations to strengthen Pacific regionalism, and to expand opportunities between the Pacific and the world. The initiative will provide US$2.1 billion in development assistance to the region and will be led and guided by the Pacific Islands. Although the initiative has been commended by the PIC, it is yet to see further development in the region. And want a continuous commitment to America for its development.
The PIC has welcomed the re-engagement with the US, but it is unlikely that they will break away from China. China has rapidly increased its bilateral and economic presence in the region and tried to influence multilateral institutions. The US needs to accept this reality while focusing on countering competition from China.
The US needs to formulate a policy towards the PIC that not only articulates US objectives for the Region but also emphasizes building long-term and sustainable partnerships with countries in the region. The US can do this by taking into account its longstanding relationship with the PIC and the fact that it is a Pacific country.