The annual Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) Leaders Meeting will convene next week in Suva, Fiji, against the backdrop of increasing geopolitical competition in the region. But as the United States and its partners grow increasingly wary of China’s strategic interests in Oceania, Pacific Island leaders seek to shift regional attention to their greatest security concern: climate change.

Homes on Ejit, an islet in the Majuro Atoll of the Marshall Islands, are under threat from rising seas, October 29, 2015. (Josh Haner/The New York Times)
Homes on Ejit, an islet in the Majuro Atoll of the Marshall Islands, are under threat from rising seas, October 29, 2015. (Josh Haner/The New York Times)

U.S.-China Competition Looms Large Over The PIF

In April, China and the Solomon Islands signed a secret security agreement — sparking concerns among Australia, New Zealand and the United States that the pact could lead to a Chinese military presence in the strategically located archipelago.

And soon after the deal with the Solomon Islands, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited the region in an attempt to persuade 10 Pacific Island countries to sign a wide-ranging multilateral economic and security deal. While Yi failed to secure regional buy-in, China still managed to sign a series of bilateral agreements.

Meanwhile, the United States has recently increased engagement in the Pacific Islands, partnering with Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the United Kingdom to launch the Partners in the Blue Pacific initiative that aims to support prosperity, resilience and security in the Pacific and enhance regional cooperation, including on the climate crisis.

U.S. allies have also reinvigorated their Pacific engagement in recent months: Australia has conducted high-level visits to the region, increased defense training for regional militaries and pledged to do more to combat climate change.

Amid both China’s and the United States and its partners’ renewed engagement in the region, Pacific Island countries are seeing a return of great power competition on a scale not felt since the Cold War.

Some Pacific Island leaders have recently issued warnings about China’s strategic aims. In March, Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo urged the Solomon Islands not to sign the security pact with Beijing, expressing concern that the Pacific Islands could become a battleground in a future U.S.-China war, drawing parallels to the devastation of World War II on the region.

Pacific Island Leaders Wary of Geopolitics Taking Center Stage

However, some Pacific Island leaders have also pushed back against the focus on geopolitics. In May, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama stated that Fiji’s greatest concern is not geopolitics, but climate change. And in June, Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa criticized the way in which bigger countries had taken such a sudden interest in the Pacific, yet did not include Pacific Island countries in consultations over AUKUS, a recent trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

This widely shared concern that geopolitics is increasingly taking center stage may underpin the PIF’s decision to not convene PIF dialogue partners, including the United States and China, during the leaders meeting in Suva — although organizers left the door open for the dialogue partners to convene virtually or later in the year. However, capacity issues probably also underpin the decision, and the PIF did not meet in person last year due to COVID-19.

Despite efforts to downplay geopolitics, the PIF will not be able to avoid the topic completely, as Australia is expected to bring up the China-Solomon Islands security deal, with China’s proposed multilateral deal also expected to feature in discussions.

In addition, China is seeking to host a virtual meeting with the 10 Pacific Island countries that have diplomatic relationships with Beijing. The proposed virtual meeting is set to coincide with the final day of the PIF, a move which is unlikely to be popular among PIF members.

Climate Change to Top PIF Agenda

In contrast to the outside focus on China, Pacific Island countries have increasingly used the PIF to amplify their deepening concerns about climate change. At the top of the agenda this year is the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, which outlines a long-term path for the region with a focus on combatting the climate crisis and fostering sustainable development.

The 2018 Boe Declaration designates climate change as the “single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific,” and reflects the Pacific Islands’ expanded concept of security beyond traditional concerns like regional stability and transnational crime.

Pacific Island countries are experiencing the effects of climate change to a more extreme degree than most other countries. Natural disasters have destroyed large portions of the region’s economies. Ocean acidification and reef erosion are destroying fish stocks, which are a key source of many people’s livelihoods. And higher tides and ocean overwash are displacing people from coastal areas and contaminating the groundwater, which in turn prevents crop growth. Thus, climate change not only exacerbates existing problems — such as food and water insecurity, migration, and economic development — but also creates new threats, as low-lying atoll nations worry that sea level rise could result in loss of sovereignty and eventual statelessness.

Although China is a major CO2 emitter, some Pacific Island countries nevertheless see China as a helpful partner in tackling the climate crisis. In 2019, Kiribati President Taneti Maamau switched his country’s position on Taiwan, recognizing Beijing’s claim over Taipei’s, in part because he judged that China is better equipped to help Kiribati combat climate change.

Pacific Island countries are seeking assistance on climate adaptation and mitigation, and they will accept it from multiple sources. This dynamic presents a challenge for the United States and its partners, who have sought to frame China as a major culprit on climate issues. Pacific Island countries have contributed the least to climate change, and yet are disproportionally affected by it. So, to some in the region, the back-and-forth about which big country is to blame for climate change seems like meaningless political point-scoring rather than substantive action.

Reunification of PIF to Bolster Regionalism

Last year the PIF experienced an unprecedented rift when the five Micronesian member countries — the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Palau, Kiribati and Nauru — threatened to withdraw from the forum over the selection of the forum’s new leader. The PIF had previously operated under an unwritten gentlemen’s agreement where the secretary-general was selected on a rotating basis from the subregions of Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia. Last year was Micronesia’s turn to lead, but the PIF selected former Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna, driving Micronesian countries to begin withdrawing from the forum over concerns of unequal representation.

But in early June, Pacific Island leaders struck a deal to keep Micronesia in the PIF. The compromise was reached thanks to talanoa, a process of dialogue and inclusive consensus-building rooted in Pacific Island cultures. The deal, which is expected to be signed at the upcoming meeting, will formalize the gentleman’s agreement in writing, ensure that a Micronesian candidate succeeds Puna as secretary-general, and introduce other changes to bolster Micronesian inclusion. Micronesian countries’ continuing role in the PIF would be a positive sign for Pacific regionalism, as they comprise about a third of forum members.

Micronesia’s reintegration to the PIF also represents a counterweight to China’s growing influence in Oceania: Three out of four of Taiwan’s remaining Pacific partners are Micronesian. And Micronesian leaders — including Panuelo — have delivered some of the strongest criticisms of China’s increased security engagement with the region.

What Do Pacific Island Countries Want from the United States?

The success of U.S. policy towards the Pacific Islands will hinge on how well Washington can follow-through on its promises and demonstrate to Pacific Island countries that the United States is fundamentally committed to them irrespective of geopolitical competition.

The second part of that approach is especially important. The United States should not view its engagement with the Pacific Islands as a zero-sum game with China. Pacific Island leaders have made clear they are not interested in entertaining Washington’s and China’s overtures if the end goal is simply bolstering one’s influence over the other.

Using the Pacific Islands’ top security concern as example, the United States should refrain from using climate change as a wedge issue meant to sour Pacific Island countries’ relations with Beijing, which is ineffective. Instead, the United States and its partners can continue to strengthen their own relationships in the region by building on the strong climate change policies included in the Partners in the Blue Pacific initiative, among other efforts. Additionally, the United States should increase support for rules and norms that bolster the sovereignty of small nations so that Pacific Island countries can preserve the region’s autonomy amid heightened tensions.

To put it simply: Counterbalancing China’s recent moves in the Pacific Islands will require the United States to focus on the needs of the region itself rather than placing broader geopolitical goals at the forefront.

Camilla Pohle-Anderson is a senior program specialist on the Southeast Asia team at USIP.

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