As President Biden hosts a first-ever U.S. summit with Pacific Island countries, USIP’s Brian Harding says regional leaders “have some concerns” about growing U.S.-China competition — but they would rather “talk about their own interests and needs … If you ask them, their top priority by far is climate change.”
U.S. Institute of Peace experts discuss the latest foreign policy issues from around the world in On Peace, a brief weekly collaboration with SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124.
Elliot Williams: This is Elliot Williams, in for Julie Mason, here on Julie Mason Mornings Sirius XM POTUS 124. You can find me on Twitter @ElliotCWilliams. You can find sitting right here, Brian Harding, senior expert for Asia for the United States Institute of Peace. Brian, how are you doing?
Brian Harding: It's good to be with you.
Elliot Williams: Sorry about that, got tongue tied for a second. But clearly you are a more articulate human being than I am. And we've got plenty to talk about with you. So, tell me this. We've got the White House Summit on Pacific Island Nations taking place September 28 and 29. And first off, big picture question for you, this is painfully basic, but how do we define, what are, the Pacific Island nations?
Brian Harding: Yeah, the first thing I'd say is that your readers may not have heard about the White House Summit on the Pacific Islands because this has never happened before, literally. This Thursday and Friday, President Biden and many members of the cabinet are going to be spending time with 14 independent countries and some other affiliated territories of other countries in the Pacific Islands region for the first time ever. These are small countries, geographically in terms of their footprint, their land, their population, but they encompass a vast swath of the Earth's surface, basically, from the west coast of the United States to the Philippines, down to Australia and New Zealand. All that blue space there in the region itself is calling itself increasingly a large ocean continent, the blue continent. To try to make the point that this is just a huge part of the Earth's surface.
Elliot Williams: Now, how do we think about the United States' interests there given the scope, and like you said, you'd mentioned starting at Hawaii all the way or the Pacific coast of the United States all the way over to Asia. Obviously, this is strategically very important for the United States. So, how do we think of the country's needs in that region?
Brian Harding: Yeah, so the reality is that the United States is paying more attention now to the Pacific Islands region than it has at any time since World War II. The last serious U.S. engagement with this region was during that period, except for in the Northern Pacific, where the United States has unique relationships with three countries -- Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands. They used to be U.S.-UN trust territories, that now have unique relationships with the United States. But basically, other than that ring of countries that sort of stretches from Hawaii to the Philippines in the South Pacific, really, the United States has left this to Australia and New Zealand to engage these countries and provide leadership. But it's really China's global rise, global U.S.-China rivalry that is bringing these countries into focus. Now, the countries of the South Pacific of the Pacific Islands, generally they have some concerns about China, but they also have a lot of interests where they want Chinese economic engagement. And if you ask them, their top priority by far is climate change.
Elliot Williams: Ah, now, one question for you. You'd made a note right off the bat, there hasn't been a summit of this kind before. Right? Very important for it to happen. Why now specifically? Now, you've touched on what I think are some of the reasons, talking about the power of China and obviously climate as an issue, but what is it about today, this week, this month, this year?
Brian Harding: Yeah, so this is part of what the Biden White House would say, is a comprehensive approach to what they're calling the Indo-Pacific. So, sort of zooming out a bit and saying, there's, you know, we're done, we're not going to talk about Asia, we're going to talk about the Indo-Pacific. And this basically means from the west coast of India, out into the Pacific Islands region. So, thinking about this as one whole system. And ultimately, the driver here is the United States has huge interest in this system that, we have growing economies, effects of climate change, transnational threats, but at the same time, China, and competition with China, is trying to change the rules and tear down the international system that has worked pretty well for the region, for ourselves, for our allies, our partners since the end of World War II. So, the Biden White House will say this is part of a broader strategy for what they call the Indo-Pacific region. And as part of the summit, the White House is going to release the first ever national strategy on the Pacific Islands region, and they'll make pains to say this is part of the broader Indo-Pacific strategy which nests into the national security strategy. So, this year, this is one piece. President Biden has had some serious engagement with Southeast Asian leaders as a bloc so, this is one more part of it.
Elliott William: Now. So that's what the United States is seeking, what will Pacific Island leaders seek from the United States here?
Brian Harding: Yeah, so again, climate change is at the top of that, and it's less about cutting emissions as adapting to rising seas. So, they're looking for some creative plans from the United States as the world's largest emitter historically, to how the United States is going to help them address these challenges. They're also looking for just general economic support, they're looking for the U.S. to follow through with commitments on what is called maritime domain awareness to help these countries understand what's happening in their vast waters that hold valuable fish stocks. But from the United States, just in general, they're looking for just consistent U.S. engagement. They're looking for some of the basics. The United States has neglected this region to the point where there are significant countries where the United States does not have embassies. The United States has recently said it's going to establish diplomatic outposts at three new Pacific Island countries. They want to see that. They want to see normal stuff like the Peace Corps come back. So, in a lot of ways, they like the fact that the United States is focused on the region in the context of China, but they certainly don't want to talk about China. They want to talk about their own interests and needs. And then, frankly, an appetite for an increased serious U.S. engagement in the region.
Elliott William: And, so again, you've used the word engagement a couple of times, and I think a couple of things you threw out were one, bring back Peace Corps, two, embassies. But what other specific ways can the U.S. increase engagement in the region?
Brian Harding: Yeah, well, no matter what you do, these are small countries population wise. So whatever you do has significant impact.
Elliot Williams: Good point.
Brian Harding: I mean, China sees it the same way. They see this is a low investment, potentially high impact arena to score meaningful and symbolic wins on various things. There's also the element of Taiwan here. So with that, it's really, you know, come into the public consciousness. Four of the remaining Taiwanese diplomatic allies, as they're called, are in the Pacific Islands region. And, you know, the United States has an interest in Taiwan maintaining its international space, and two of those countries, Palau and the Marshall Islands, two countries that were part of a major report that USIP just put out last week, where the United States states has really just fundamental strengths over China. You also have Taiwan as part of the mix. So, supporting our Taiwanese friends and their international space is also a U.S. priority.
Elliott William: Brian Harding, senior expert for Asia for the United States Institute of Peace. Thanks so much, and congratulations on the good work around the United States or the White House Summit on Pacific Island Nations. Certainly it's the efforts of the US.. Institute of Peace in promoting stability around the globe that has led to events like this. Thank you so much.
Brian Harding: No problem. Look forward to it again.