The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) held its 51st leaders meeting on August 6, with Fiji serving as virtual host. The PIF is comprised of 18 members, and the United States is among 18 PIF Dialogue Partners that participate in an annual post-forum dialogue. This year, President Joe Biden led the U.S. delegation and delivered his own address, a first for a U.S. president and a demonstration of the strategic importance of Pacific Island nations to U.S. priorities like climate change, COVID-19 and competition with China. USIP’s Jennifer Staats and Brian Harding discuss what PIF members and Washington want from each other and the major issues facing the region.
What did President Biden tell Pacific Island leaders and how has his administration engaged the region more generally?
In his address, Biden focused on the issues that matter most to the region: COVID-19 and climate change. He reaffirmed the strength of America’s relationship with each individual country in the Pacific Islands region and stressed the need to work together to stop the spread of COVID-19 and ensure an “inclusive, sustained recovery.” He highlighted U.S. efforts to provide vaccines around the world and announced that Washington would donate an additional 500 million doses for distribution through COVAX with “no strings or conditions” attached. He also promised to serve as a global leader on climate change, “dramatically reducing” U.S. emissions by 2030 and working with vulnerable communities to build resilience and save lives, including a pledge to double financing to developing nations and triple financing for climate adaptation. Finally, he reiterated that the United States is a Pacific power, and will remain an “active and engaged partner in the region” to promote security and prosperity for the region through a free and open Indo-Pacific.
This address builds on several months of increasing engagement with Pacific Island countries. The administration has placed considerable priority on the region due to its increasing strategic importance in terms of competition with China and its centrality to global climate change negotiations, both key priorities for Biden. This emphasis builds on increased focus and engagement during the Trump and Obama administrations, again, largely in the context of competition with China and concern that China is making inroads with strategically located countries in the region, including those with particularly close relationships with the United States.
The administration has placed particular focus on three countries: Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), countries with which the United States is linked by Compacts of Free Association, and for which the United States is responsible for defense and the provision of federal services, ranging from disaster relief to aviation safety. Just this week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin hosted President of Palau Surangel Whipps, Jr. This visit followed FSM President David Panuelo’s 10-day July stay in Hawaii and RMI President David Kabua’s participation in the March White House Climate Summit. With each country, renewal of the compacts, which include financial arrangements, are due in 2023 and 2024.
What do the Pacific Islands countries want to see from the United States?
Pacific Islands leaders have made it clear — repeatedly and unambiguously — that climate change is the greatest threat facing the region. The United States’ return to the forefront of global climate change negotiations and efforts to reduce emissions at home provides a basis for more successful diplomacy, but the region is looking for results. In July, Presidential Special Envoy John Kerry addressed the Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders, which included leaders and designees from 11 regions, countries and territories. PIF leaders will want to hear more from the United States about how Washington will address climate change, including how it will consider difficult issues such as loss and damage in multilateral negotiations.
In the coming weeks and months, Pacific Islands leaders will be watching to see how the United States will increase tangible engagement with the Pacific Islands region and where the region sits within the Biden administration’s broader Indo-Pacific policy framework. What they don’t want to hear is a strategy overly focused on competition with China. Despite reservations, China is almost universally seen to be an important development partner and the region does not want competition to dominate any country’s engagement.
Why are the Pacific Islands important to the United States?
As the previous INDOPACOM commander put it last November, America’s top priority in the Pacific Islands is “the defense of U.S. territories and protection of our American citizens. The next priority is to the Freely Associated States (Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands), [with] which the United States maintains both security and direct defense obligations.” In a potential military conflict in the western Pacific, the ability to protect and operate from the “second island chain” (including Palau and the U.S. territory of Guam) in the North Pacific could be decisive. Meanwhile, suspicions about China’s interest in establishing a military presence in the South Pacific have galvanized Australia and New Zealand to enhance their already robust engagement.
The United States is also working with partners on a range of transnational challenges, such as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, narcotics and human trafficking and resilience against pandemics.
The U.S. Congress has taken recent steps to strengthen ties with the Pacific Islands region and push the executive branch to be more engaged. Congress recently created a bipartisan Congressional Pacific Islands Caucus and members have introduced legislation to promote “three essential pillars: security, development, and shared values” in the region, in close coordination with partners in Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Taiwan.
The Pacific Islands are also politically important. Together, they form an important bloc at the United Nations and are at the center of global climate negotiations, given the existential threat the climate crisis poses to many countries in the region. The region has also long been central to competition between China and Taiwan and remains so — of the 15 states that currently have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, four are in the Pacific Islands, two fewer than in 2019. Further, China has been showering the region with diplomatic attention and economic assistance as part of the Belt and Road Initiative and its broader efforts to build closer ties with states across the region. While the Pacific Island countries value this economic investment, some have grown wary of China’s increased influence. In recent elections in Samoa, for example, voters elected a new prime minister who fulfilled a campaign pledge to cancel a major new seaport project due to concerns about rising debt.
What are the top issues facing the PIF and the region in general?
While COVID-19 has largely spared the region, aside from an ongoing surge in Fiji and a previous acute outbreak in Papua New Guinea, travel restrictions have left the region isolated and severely damaged national economies. The United States, China, Japan and Australia have all provided much-needed vaccines, but the social and economic implications of the pandemic will reverberate throughout the region for years.
The region also does not want to become a pawn in the competition between the United States and China. Indeed, the outgoing PIF secretary-general, Dame Meg Taylor, warned against outside influence by external powers, and encouraged PIF members to make their own decisions. To be accepted as a trusted partner in the Pacific, the United States must demonstrate that it is interested in the Pacific Island nations for their own sake and invested in working with countries in the region to address the issues that matter most to them on their terms.
Meanwhile, regionalism and the PIF itself are under immense stress following a vote to make former Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna the new PIF secretary-general in the face of what many thought was a gentlemen’s agreement to make way for the next secretary-general to come from the Micronesian subregion. Today, the five Micronesian countries — Palau, FSM, RMI, Kiribati, and Nauru — are in various stages of reviewing their PIF membership. Given the close U.S. relationship with Palau, FSM and RMI, this puts the United States in a difficult position and makes it harder for Washington to support the Compact States while also calling for a broad-based, cohesive Pacific Islands Forum.
Ultimately, the countries of the Pacific, while disparate and facing immense challenges, are seeking to assert their own agency in the face of geopolitical headwinds. They see themselves as a collection of resilient "large ocean island states” comprising a blue Pacific continent. But they also recognize that they are being courted and seek development partners who will work with them on their key priorities, beginning with climate change. On this count, the Biden administration finds itself well-placed — but actions will speak louder than words.