President Joe Biden will host leaders of Pacific Island countries for a summit at the White House from September 28-29, the latest U.S. effort to strengthen ties with a region that is increasingly the focus of competition between China and the United States and its partners. While China is a major force behind the United States’ effort to reengage with the Pacific Islands, strategic competition has also reawakened Washington to its fundamental interests in the region, which have existed for many decades, and long predate the current era of U.S.-China rivalry.
“In 2019, our people voted — we believe in democracy,” Ishmael Toroama, president of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, said in a speech at Georgetown University in Washington on November 9. Toroama was referring to the 2019 referendum in which 97.7 percent of Bougainvilleans, with 87.4 percent turnout, voted for independence from Papua New Guinea in a powerful confirmation of their long-held desire for self-determination. This desire has been largely ignored by the world, but in order to realize it, Bougainville needs strong international partners.
In September 2022, USIP published a report on “China’s Influence on the Freely Associated States of the Northern Pacific,” which consist of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Palau. “China’s engagement in these countries threatens [U.S.] interests both locally and in the broader Pacific region,” said the preface to the report, which makes the case that strengthening U.S. relations with the Freely Associated States (FAS) is essential to secure U.S. interests and prevent China from increasing its influence in the region. This Senior Study Group report largely focuses on the interests of the United States, China and the FAS, but also has significant implications for Taiwan.
Fiji has become an integral part of the United States’ reengagement in the Pacific in recent years, including a visit to Suva from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in February. Although Fiji is a small country by global standards, it is a regional leader in the Pacific due to its central location, relative size and international role on issues ranging from peacekeeping to climate change action. Fiji also houses one of only six U.S. Embassies in the Pacific Islands, making it a hub for regional diplomacy.
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 the Pacific Islands, leaders of PIF member states seek to shift regional attention to their greatest security concern: climate change.
Most Pacific Island countries have formal diplomatic relations with Beijing. But at both the local and national level, some leaders are raising concerns about Chinese bribery, violations of sovereignty, clandestine intelligence operations and political interference in their countries, as well as the possibility that China may invade Taiwan. As Beijing forces its agenda on Pacific Island countries and competes with the United States for influence in the region, Washington should lead by example and build partnerships with the Pacific Islands that emphasize consulting with them as equals and focusing on areas of common interest, like climate change.
The United States notched multiple diplomatic wins in the Pacific Islands region last week, making further progress in Washington’s efforts to step up engagement in this oft-neglected part of the world. In a move closely watched by Pacific nations, the United States signed deals to renew its economic assistance to Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia for the next 20 years. Meanwhile, although President Biden had to cancel his planned visit to Papua New Guinea, Secretary of State Antony Blinken inked a defense cooperation deal with the island nation in the president’s stead. While the region has become another arena for U.S.-China competition, Washington has long-standing relationships and interests there that go well beyond its rivalry with Beijing.
The Pacific island nation of Nauru this week switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China, a move that could seem of little consequence in a largely symbolic competition between Taipei and Beijing. But the move has a deeper significance for the United States.
As Washington reengages in the Pacific, it must not overlook Bougainville, an autonomous and want-away region of Papua New Guinea. The United States is neutral on Bougainville’s future political status, which is for Papua New Guinea and Bougainville to resolve. Nevertheless, Washington should recall long U.S.-Bougainville historical ties, and consider how the Pacific Partnership Strategy could be leveraged to benefit the people of Bougainville, whatever their future political status might be.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare is attempting to delay the 2023 elections — which would normally take place between May and August — to 2024, causing concerns among civil society and regional partners regarding the country’s growing autocracy and ties to China. Delaying the vote is broadly unpopular and could spark protests. Some Solomon Islanders fear that Sogavare may use Chinese security forces to crack down on protesters, which would fuel further instability. Postponing the election may also set a dangerous precedent for the future, allowing Sogavare to further solidify his power.