Pacific Island nations – A strategic focus of the Biden administration
US President Joe Biden attended the first US- Pacific Island Country Summit in the White House, September 2022. Photo: AP.

US interests in the region

The strategy emphasizes the importance of the Pacific to the US. In terms of geo-strategy, this region occupies 15% of the global area, connecting the US with another key region - the Indo-Pacific. In terms of culture - society, the US has more than two million citizens living in the Pacific Islands, and a long history of attachment to the Pacific Islands (in World War II, the Solomon Islanders had helped the US build the airstrips). In terms of security, the region is now facing a series of challenges, including climate change, illegal fishing, COVID-19 and China’s pressure. The strategy affirms that all these challenges are consequential  

However, the Pacific Island nations and the importance of this region were already mentioned in the Biden administration's Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) in February 2022[1]. If only for the above reasons, there is no need to draft a separate document on the Pacific Island nations.

Another interest that the strategy does not mention is great power competition.The Pacific Ocean is where China is promoting its influence[2]. Besides reciprocal trade with increasing value, China has also initiated more than 100 aid projects and trained more than 10,000 people for the region since the 1970s[3]. In 2022 alone, the media went frenzy about the “secret” security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands, and the economic - security agreement negotiation between China and Pacific Island nations. Before that, some Pacific countries such as Kiribati and the Solomon Islands had also stopped recognizing Taiwan diplomatically and switched to recognizing China.

Meanwhile, the US had been deemed to have "forgotten" about the Pacific region for many years. Trump-era policy documents placed little emphasis on the region as the 2017 National Security Strategy mentioned the Pacific Island nations only once[4]. Besides, the US has not yet satisfactorily resolved the war legacies in the region. During the Cold War, the US repeatedly dumped nuclear waste into the Pacific Ocean, conducted 67 weapons tests in the Marshall Islands from 1946 to 1958 (there were reports showing that the consequences were even more serious than that in Fukushima or Chernobyl[5]). The adminstration of territories in the US’ Freely Associated States (FAS) bloc is also a sensitive issue. The independent and anti -“American imperialist” movements are also popular in many island nations.

Against this backdrop, the US strategy can be considered as a "tacit" move in response to China's growing influence and to re-engage in the Pacific Island nations.

The imprints of multilateralism

The strategy sets out four goals: (i) a strong US-Pacific Islands partnership; (ii) a united Pacific Islands region connected with the world; (iii) a resilent Pacific Islands region prepared for the climate crisis and other 21st-century challenges; (iv) empowered and prosperous Pacific Islanders. The first two goals gravitate towards bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, the third one being more about traditional and non-traditional security, and the fourth about economic - development. To achieve the four goals, the Biden administration will pursue 10 approaches, in which multilateralism is emerging apparently.

While the IPS (released in February 2022) emphasizes minilateral mechanisms such as Quad and AUKUS, the Pacific Partnership Strategy stresses the role of multilateralism, especially the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). The PIF is mentioned 16 times throughout the strategy (Quad is mentioned 3 times, AUKUS isn't even mentioned). The reasons for this might be: (i) PIF has shown some signs of fracture over the past time (five Micronesian island nations announced their withdrawal from PIF in February 2021; Kiribati and the Solomon Islands stopped recognizing Taiwan in 2019 while Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands still retain their support for Taiwan[6]), thus the US should  has interests in building consensus in its favor; (ii) Quad or AUKUS activities focus more on East Asia and the Indian Ocean.

The strategy avoids attaching multilateralism and the PIF to  big powers competition. Specifically, the document only mentions China once in the introduction (China does not appear in the main body). This is also another difference between the Pacific Partnership Strategy from the IPS (as the IPS constantly mentions geo-political competition and challenges from China). This may be due to several reasons: (i) China is not located in the Pacific islands region, thus is less noticed; (ii) this is the first time the US has had its own strategic document for the Pacific, so it is necessary for the US to emphasize the importance of the Pacific and the PIF separate from US interests; (iii) leaders of some Pacific nations have warned about the great power competition and they do not want the Pacific to become an arena for great power competition[7], hence the US wants to show its sensitivity, avoiding the impression that the US is forcing these nations to "take sides" so that they can embrace the Strategy.

The prospects of the Strategy

The US has shown signs of "re-engagement" in the Pacific, acting as a leverage for the new Strategy. For instance, in 2018, Vice President Mike Pence visited Papua New Guinea to attend APEC summit. In 2019, Mike Pompeo was the first US Secretary of State to visit Micronesia. After the COVID-19 hiatus, during the Biden Administration, especially in 2022, many high-ranking officials have visited  the Pacific, including Secretary of State Blinken, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Kritenbrink, National Security Council Coordinator Kurt Campbell, Special Envoy John Kerry, and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, etc. During the PIF meeting on July 12, 2022, the US Vice President announced that the US would release a Pacific Strategy[8]. The US also chose Fiji as the venue to announce the IPS in February 2022.

However, the Strategy still contains uncertainties. Firstly, as mentioned above, the US influence in the Pacific is still limited while the influence of China or even Australia has partly expanded.

Secondly, despite being very careful in wording, some paragraphs in the Strategy may displease Pacific countries: The Strategy considers the US to be the "leading" country in combating climate change in the Pacific while other Pacific countries are only partners, not leading in this issue; the Strategy mentions geo-political competition, but immediately "blames" this on China's increased coercion on the Pacific.

Thirdly and most importantly, the Strategy has not yet specified resources for implementation. The US has come up with many ideas such as the Pacific Partnership, the expansion of US diplomatic missions, initiatives to dispose of plastic waste, and investments in reducing the impact of climate change, but all of them need financial resources. The Strategy only mentions engaging Quad’s members in investment generally without providing specific funding capital. In the context of the prolonged Ukraine conflict, the Pacific region may have to compete with other regions in the Indo-Pacific for attention and resources. Recently, leaked information from the COFA negotiation shows that the leaders of Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands had bluntly announced that the US-proposed aid was not enough to realize the US commitments[9]. Without specific resources, US commitments can be seen as just lip-service.

Overall, the Pacific Partnership Strategy is a major milestone in the Biden administration’s foreign policy. The Strategy shows that the Pacific Island nations are gradually gaining in prominence to the US as China is also promoting its influence here. However, the Strategy can be considered as a reactive move. To succeed, the US needs to have a longer-term vision, value the region for its own values, focus on difficult historical issues as well as fully mobilize resources to implement the Strategy in the long run.

The original article (in Vietnamese) here. Translated by Phương Thảo.