How the US can build cooperation in the Pacific

The United States is in the midst of a major shift in focus to the Indo-Pacific as it competes with China for global influence. This contest will affect key US priorities and require comprehensive policy engagement with Pacific island nations and other partners in the region.

The driver for this change is the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI) established under the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act. When approved, the initiative will require the US Department of Defense to invest in stronger military capabilities across all domains. The PDI is intended to reassure allies and partners across the region of the depth of the US’s commitment. Most importantly, the congressional legislation underpinning a shift in resources compels action by future US administrations.

At the same time, a smaller bipartisan bill called the BLUE Pacific Act, introduced in the House Foreign Affairs Committee with support from the Pacific Islands Congressional Caucus, would appropriate supplementary funding for diplomatic and civilian agencies that would augment the PDI. This funding would help close gaps to address areas not specifically referenced in the larger legislation.

US interests in Asia and the Pacific are secured by US Indo-Pacific Command headquartered in Hawaii. To meet the PDI’s objectives, the US will provide additional resources to help countries overcome vulnerabilities to climate change and global pandemics and enhance economic development and capacity-building. Additional focus should be placed on protection of vulnerable populations consistent with the 2017 Women, Peace and Security Act.

The US must strengthen its relationship with the freely associated states (Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Palau), which are critical to regional stability and security. The compacts of free association now being negotiated will accomplish that task. At the same time, ties with Kiribati need to be strengthened using its separate treaties of friendship and marine conservation as a foundation.

The US also should align its policies in the North Pacific with its approach in the South Pacific. It needs to examine how it will refocus is engagement with Papua New Guinea (including Bougainville), Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Timor-Leste, along with its allies.

The 2020 AUSMIN statement underscores cooperation between the US and Australia that will help implement the legislative authorisations and appropriations of the PDI. Although the PDI has not yet been passed by Congress, the imperative for increased collaboration between Washington and Canberra has already been prescribed, especially on health security in the Pacific nations. The efforts by the US to staunch HIV and Australia’s ongoing efforts to stem non-communicable diseases would be an effective starting point for regional collaboration on health security.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought immense challenges to Pacific nations. It has undermined key economic sectors, including labour, tourism and commercial growth, and risks fraying their social fabric. This in turn has made these states susceptible to China’s entanglements in their attempts to address these new vulnerabilities.

The PDI includes a broad definition of civil–military assistance, particularly when such efforts complement the significant requirements for establishing a stronger defence capability. However, Pacific nations need sustainability and continuity in their relationships with the US.

Washington must be mindful that they were disappointed by its response during climate change negotiations as it became clear that there was no inclination to compensate them for sea-level rise attributed to increased carbon emissions.

The US should review the different approaches of its allies and regional partners, particularly Australia, New Zealand and Japan, to determine where any additional funding for civilian agencies would complement acutely needed development assistance and capacity-building. The island nations would benefit from parallel funding of existing bilateral projects. This approach would not duplicate programs funded by the United Nations and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community. However, it would mobilise resources to address conditions and situations exacerbated by the economic dislocations and privations spurred by the pandemic.

Focusing on regional health security as a priority area for coordination and collaboration with the island nations allows them and those providing help to review how existing resources can fund projects without the need to build new programs. It also could create a vehicle for other donor countries as well as Taipei to create sustainable healthcare funding mechanisms for the region. Within the US there would be strong bipartisan support for an initiative that would support Taipei’s inclusion in a regional health security program.

That would complement INDOPACOM’s efforts to strengthen humanitarian assistance and disaster planning with Australia and New Zealand. Strengthening island states’ capacity to prepare for natural disasters and to withstand their impacts should be linked to existing development assistance projects. Helping them build new infrastructure beyond that required under the PDI would be essential to these efforts.

This focus would create strong consideration for full US membership in the Pacific Islands Forum based on the substantial resources to be provided to the region that will be mandated by Congress.

There’s a longstanding record of Congress using legislation to direct foreign policy initiatives that unify the efforts of American civilian agencies and the military. The competition with China and others challenging the US in the Pacific requires a resources-based strategy that underpins US regional commitments. For US allies and partner nations, a coordinated, comprehensive and cohesive approach would become a useful planning tool to meet common objectives.

This post is part of an ASPI research project on the vulnerability of Indo-Pacific island states in the age of Covid-19 being undertaken with the support of the Embassy of Japan in Australia.