The US in the Pacific: delivering on commitments or déjà vu?
15 Jul 2022| and

On 13 July, US Vice President Kamala Harris addressed the 51st Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting by video link. Harris’s speech was unexpected and unprecedented, since the US is a forum dialogue partner rather than a member. Pacific leaders had opted this year not to hold the traditional post-forum partners’ dialogue, at which partner states (including the US and China) meet with forum leaders after their leaders’ meeting. Pacific leaders wanted to ensure that there was ‘space’ to resolve issues and determine priorities without having to manage the demands and expectations of external partners.

The decision not to hold the post-forum dialogue was in part due to Pacific leaders’ frustration about strategic competition overshadowing and undermining Pacific priorities and agendas. Last month it emerged that China had invited the 10 Pacific island states it has diplomatic relations with to a virtual meeting with Foreign Minister Wang Yi on 14 July, coinciding with the leaders’ retreat.

By having Harris deliver her speech at the forum, the US disturbed the equilibrium that Pacific leaders had achieved on geopolitical matters. But for at least some Pacific leaders, that disturbance was convenient: it sent a pointed message both to China and to those Pacific countries that have recently moved closer to it.

During her speech, Harris declared: ‘We recognise that in recent years, the Pacific islands may not have received the diplomatic attention and support that you deserve. So today I am here to tell you directly: we are going to change that.’ She announced seven commitments to ‘strengthen the US partnership with the Pacific islands’ including two ‘firsts’—the appointment of a US envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum and the adoption of a US national strategy on the Pacific islands nested under its Indo-Pacific strategy.

Several of the US initiatives are bound in caveats. The US$600 million over 10 years for economic development and ocean governance is dependent on annual congressional approval, and the opening of embassies in Kiribati and Tonga and the USAID hub in Fiji are dependent on congressional notification. The return of the Peace Corps to the Pacific is not a new initiative.

The declared commitments follow a speech by Kurt Campbell, the US National Security Council’s coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on 23 June. In that speech, Campbell emphasised the need for American ‘humility’ and repeated the mantra, ‘nothing in the Pacific without the Pacific’.

On 24 June, the Partners in the Blue Pacific (PBP) initiative, involving the Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the UK and the US, was launched. This informal mechanism is intended to ‘support prosperity, resilience, and security in the Pacific’ with the aims of delivering results more effectively and efficiently, bolstering ‘Pacific regionalism’ and expanding opportunities for cooperation between the Pacific and the rest of the world.

But there are questions about what is driving America’s renewed attention to the Pacific islands and the ways it is seeking to engage. The islands have undergone significant change over the past two decades. As a ‘great power’, the US has much to learn about how to engage much smaller Pacific states and to navigate Pacific statecraft.

Harris’s emphasis on ‘partnership, friendship and respect’ and Campbell’s calls for the US to be ‘humble’ were well intentioned and appealing to Pacific audiences, and they were well received. Following the vice president’s speech, Bainimarama declared that the US was to ‘become a Pacific partner like never before’ and Pacific Islands Forum Secretary-General Henry Puna said the US announcement showed the ‘deep substance’ underpinning its commitment to the region.

But will the US be able to deliver? The gaps between announcements of US initiatives and their actual implementation are notorious in the Pacific, with many prior funding announcements failing to get through Congress. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended the forum in 2012, she also made a raft of promises—many of which were not delivered.

This highlights the pattern of inconsistency in US policy towards the Pacific islands since the Cold War and raises the question of whether the region can rely on the renewed US focus lasting beyond a change of government (potentially in two years’ time). The window to embed policies that bring about long-term engagement could be narrow.

If American engagement in the Pacific does ramp up significantly, how many island states and territories will have the capacity to absorb the new expenditure and programs? Most Pacific bureaucracies are small, and even hosting the increasing number of government officials visiting from the US and other partner countries imposes a serious burden. There’s a risk that ineffective engagement will squander resources and relationships.

Coordinating the new US programs and activities with other partners will be key. While the PBP initiative includes this as a priority, past form suggests that even the closest allies, such as the US and Australia, can have difficulty moving beyond bilateralism. While the PBP initiative may expand, it is also notable that France was not included in the initial list of participants, despite possessing several territories in the region and being a treaty ally, or partner, of the US and other members.

Pacific leaders have long called for improved donor coordination. The Cairns Compact that Pacific Islands Forum leaders adopted in 2009 seeks to do just that. The US, Australia and other partners (although notably not China) signed up to the compact, but the PBP makes no reference to it. This raises the questions of how the PBP initiative will align with the existing regional architecture and whether new mechanisms are needed when existing Pacific-created ones are underutilised.

Concerns have already been expressed that the PBP initiative co-opts the language of the ‘Blue Pacific’, which forum leaders use to describe the interconnectedness and collaborative approach of the region. But beyond rhetorical emphasis on forum centrality and Pacific priorities, the PBP initiative appears to sideline the forum in practical terms. Indeed, the US intends to convene the PBP partners’ foreign ministers at the end of the year to review ‘our progress’. Why are forum members not being asked to measure the effectiveness of the PBP, or at least to participate in that meeting?

This contains echoes of a longstanding dynamic of US engagement in the Pacific islands: asking Australians and New Zealanders to speak for the Pacific in Washington. Indeed, Campbell stressed that the US would listen to Australia and New Zealand, its two partners with the most significant engagement in the Pacific islands. Allies and partners can make important soft-power and practical contributions to alliance burdens beyond military power but, while Australia and New Zealand have much expertise and experience to offer, their advice should always be secondary to what Pacific states are themselves saying.

Deep knowledge and understanding of the Pacific, built on enduring relationships with Pacific leaders, officials and civil society, is critical to ensuring that US initiatives are appropriately designed and targeted.

It’s promising that Harris and Campbell emphasised listening to Pacific leaders about their priorities. But that will require some logistical investments. Proximity matters in Washington, and few Pacific island states can afford to maintain a diplomatic presence both in Washington and at the United Nations in New York. Most favour the latter. Facilitating their travel to Washington for regular consultations would be a big help.

And Pacific knowledge in Washington is scant. There are hubs of Pacific experts in Hawaii and Guam, as well as a large Pacific diaspora in the US, yet they appear to be given few opportunities to inform US government policy. There’s an opportunity for Washington-based think tanks to deepen their networks by drawing on Pacific experts and scholars beyond the beltway.

Indeed, Campbell’s comment at CSIS that the US ‘can’t really get away with saying we’re part of the Pacific, but we kind of are’ reveals a blind spot in the American strategic imagination. While Hawaii is a US state and Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands are US territories, the ‘freely associated states’ of Micronesia, Palau and Marshall Islands are ‘managed’ by the US Department of the Interior. Overlooking US relationships with these Pacific territories and states might stem in part from the fact that the US hasn’t yet come to terms with its history in the region. The scars of US colonialism, militarism and nuclear testing remain visible—as do the long-term health, environmental, economic and social effects.

While Harris’s speech was warmly received by several forum leaders, Pacific buy-in to the US’s efforts and the PBP initiative cannot be taken for granted. Pacific island states have long demonstrated their agency in dealing with more powerful partners and are well aware of the challenges they face and the best ways to tackle them. Unless they are equal partners in any negotiations related to how the US and its partners conduct their activities in the region, the island states are unlikely to support these overtures—and China’s presence means that they have other options.

The US will therefore need to ensure that its enhanced engagement with the Pacific islands is framed as being driven by genuine and sustained interest in the region. The new emphasis on building an American presence—diplomats, aid workers and the Peace Corps—is overdue. But the US will quickly learn that presence doesn’t necessarily equate to partnership—let alone influence. Instead, building relationships and trust takes time, patience and, yes, humility.