Pacific Island nations will be attending the 2023 U.N. Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP28) in Dubai this week with their concerns well known. USIP’s Gordon Peake discussed what the island states will expect from the summit, how the U.S.-China strategic competition is playing out in the region and what more the United States can do to build support in the region.

President Joe Biden with Pacific Island leaders as part of the Pacific Islands Forum at the White House. September 25, 2023. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)
President Joe Biden with Pacific Island leaders as part of the Pacific Islands Forum at the White House. September 25, 2023. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

What are the priorities of the Pacific Island nations going into COP28?

Peake: Pacific Island negotiators will have the same asks as they always have when they go into these meetings, which is seeking practical action on and financial compensation for climate change. Leaders of Pacific nations make the point regularly that their nations, which contribute the least to global emissions, bear the brunt of their effects. The Pacific Islands Forum communique this month noted that more than 50,000 people in the Pacific are displaced annually due to climate and disaster-related events.

The effects of climate change in the Pacific Islands are now so commonplace that they almost don’t get remarked upon. For instance, in Ebeye, an island in the Marshall Islands, the amount of seawater sluicing onto land is now such that walking along most roads necessitates wading through knee-deep water, as a USIP team discovered when it visited earlier this year.

The United States has made climate change adaption a major feature of its 2022 Pacific Partnership Strategy but this cannot be a policy in isolation — it needs to be in tandem with commitments and action to curb emissions closer to home, which are contributing to rising sea levels in the Pacific. The way the United States approaches climate negotiations in Dubai will be a litmus test of how it will be perceived in the Pacific.

What were the key takeaways from the Pacific Islands Forum held earlier in November?

Peake: The issue on which Pacific Island governments want first-order attention given is abundantly clear from the summit’s communique. It is climate change.

The careful words in the communique belied discord elsewhere, including a walkout. David Adeang, president of Nauru, whisked himself and his delegation off in private jet before the summit ended over a perception that fellow countries were unhappy about the appointment of Baron Waqa, a former president of Nauru, as the next secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum. Nauru is part of a bloc of five Micronesian countries which threatened to split away from the forum in 2021 because of unhappiness as to how the secretary general position was being rotated among members. Adeang’s surprise departure demonstrated that previous tensions within the forum have not been papered over. Waqa’s appointment was confirmed at the meeting, and he will take over next year.

Although the language about the matter in the communique is even keeled, there seems no consensus in the region over AUKUS, the trilateral security pact Canberra entered with United Kingdom and the United States. As part of the arrangements, Australia will acquire nuclear-powered, conventionally armed submarines while defense ties between the three nations will be bolstered. Civil society organizations and former leaders are publicly pointed in their concerns about the region becoming militarized.

Here an important point needs to be made about what this mixed set of attitudes toward AUKUS implies and does not imply. Diplomacy in the Pacific cannot be reduced to a “box score” exercise; just because some may be ambivalent or opposed to AUKUS does not connote with being pro-China.

Another eye-catching story to emerge from the summit was the announcement of a far-reaching treaty between Australia and Tuvalu. The Falepili Union provides for a pathway to migration to Australia, supports climate adaption work in the low-lying atoll nation and also has a heavy security dimension. As per the terms of the treaty, which has yet to be ratified by either parliament, Australia has veto power over any security or defense deal that Tuvalu may seek to enter with any other country. This formulation mimics a key feature of the three Compacts of Free Association that the United States has with Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Palau, which provides, in effect, the United States with strategic denial over access to the three countries’ lands, airspace and territorial waters. That another country — Australia — is borrowing so obviously from a U.S. approach is significant. Some Canberra strategists have long argued for borrowing from the U.S. approach and setting up “compacts” with other Pacific Island states. Now it seems to be happening. Is this the first of other such arrangements?

Which brings us to the issue of the compacts and, more specifically, funding. In 2023, the United States agreed new 20-year funding packages with each of the three compact states. This is good news. Under the current continuing resolution, the U.S. government extended compact funding and U.S. programs and services to the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands under the former compact funding levels, because the new funding agreements reached this year have not been approved by the U.S. Congress. The resolution expires on February 2, 2024. (Palau’s money expires in September 2024). Wesley Simina, president of the Federated States of Micronesia, warned this month that his country was teetering on the edge of a “fiscal cliff” because of funding uncertainties. Simina’s forthright observations are important to note as are those of Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. who mused publicly last month about the strength of the U.S. commitment to his nation. These nations do not want to be taken for granted.

How is the U.S.-China strategic competition playing out in the Pacific Island nations?

Peake: A droll observation heard in government circles in some Pacific capitals is that the islands haven’t seen as much attention from Washington since the Second World War. Island leaders are as shrewd as any—they realize that a side effect of geopolitical competition is more attention. Like any savvy political operator, these leaders try to maximize this moment for their own interests, whether that term is broadly or narrowly defined; explicitly choosing sides as inimical to their interests. “Friends to all, enemies to none” — the informal leitmotif of Pacific foreign policy — is a strategy that can pay dividends in this heightened geopolitical moment. As Dame Meg Taylor, a former secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum, wrote recently, Pacific Island nations would prefer not to choose. “Narratives of neither the United States nor China fully align with our own,” Taylor wrote. A Pacific focus, she said, should be on controlling their own agenda, not being beholden to others and remaining four-square on the issue of climate.

Away from offices, embassies and the hubbub of capital-city coffee shops where elite and diplomats mingle, strategic maneuverings have less discernible impact. Much engagement is at the “state-to-state” level and in much of the Pacific the state has an incomplete reach. For example, USIP has a program in Lae, second city of Papua New Guinea and capital of a province, Morobe, identified as a focus of U.S. support in its Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability. Compared to most of Papua New Guinea, Lae is well connected. Yet even in this metropolitan center, the state plays a negligible role in the hardscrabble lives that most citizens eke out. Teekoa Iuta, a former ambassador of Kiribati to Taiwan, made this point eloquently during a USIP roundtable in September when she observed that the security preoccupations of most people in her country related to “human security” issues like health, education and livelihoods.

How effective has the United States been in using soft power—in the form of a specific public diplomacy strategy, for example—in the Pacific Island nations? What more could the United States be doing?

Peake: Soft power is a term the American political scientist Joseph Nye coined to mean “the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment.” Events taking place this month alone demonstrate states seeking influence in the region deploying “soft power.”

In Honiara, China and Australia invested heavily in the Pacific Islands games, for instance. The United States is also investing in sports in the region and other initiatives sometimes glossed as around enhancing “people-to-people” ties. Having additional embassies in the region — the United States opened new embassies this year in Solomon Islands and Tonga — will help in implementing “soft power” initiatives like “American spaces” which showcase U.S. culture. An adroit “Rising Leaders” fellowship program began this year, introducing the next generation of Pacific leaders to the United States. For many participants, they were visiting these shores for the first time.

Aside from direct governmental investment in soft power, an often unappreciated asset is the relational wealth of individuals already on the ground. This is particularly true when it comes to U.S. citizens in the Pacific. They are the human faces of the United States in the islands, their faces much more recognizable than even a diplomat might be, even at the tail end of a three-year tour.

While it is largely true that the United States may have forgotten the Pacific, Americans did not. Throughout the Pacific Islands are individual U.S. citizens playing impactful roles, woven deep into the fabric of the societies they call home. Many have been there decades. In Marshall Islands, for instance, U.S. citizens play key roles as editor of the national newspaper, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, as a secretary of health who helped helm the country’s extraordinary response to the COVID-19 pandemic, who also, in a private capacity, has been an impactful voice raising alarm against mismanagement of funds. U.S. “relics” such as these play similarly impactful roles across the Pacific.

Not all, but many, of these Americans started off their time in the islands through the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps is a beloved institution in the Pacific and a great repository of U.S. soft power. This institution left the islands in the nineties and early oughts and its return to Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and, shortly, Vanuatu is welcome. It is an important part of U.S. “soft power.”

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