US Congress moves to prioritise the Pacific
10 Jun 2021|

The US Congress has before it three pieces of legislation that have the potential to significantly alter the depth of US engagement with the Pacific island countries: the Boosting Long-term US Engagement in the Pacific Act, or BLUE Pacific Act; the Honoring Our Commitment to Elevate America’s Neighbor Islands and Allies Act, or Honoring OCEANIA Act; and the Strategic Competition Act. None have yet become law but taken together mark a significant shift in how Congress views Pacific island countries.

The BLUE Pacific Act was first introduced into the House of Representatives by Ed Case (a Democrat) and Ted Yoho (a Republican), both members of the newly established Pacific Islands Caucus. A new version was introduced in May. The proposed act focuses on expanding the US’s diplomatic and development presence in the Pacific islands. It increases US cooperation and assistance to address regional maritime security, transnational crime and law-enforcement issues, including illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. It also promotes trade and investment, and expands support for public health, education, infrastructure, and climate change resilience and adaptation. Finally, the bill strengthens people-to-people relationships and civil society organisations.

The Honoring Oceania Act similarly has bipartisan support. Like the BLUE Pacific Act, it is intended to elevate Oceania in US national security and economic policy decisions. This includes working with allies in addressing regional issues, like maritime security; illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing; environmental protection; and disaster preparedness. The bill also requires the inclusion of all developing countries of Oceania in existing strategic planning and program evaluation undertaken by the State Department. The CEO of the US International Development Finance Corporation will be required to produce a strategy for increasing development finance assistance to Oceania countries.

The bill’s other requirements include strengthening disaster risk reduction and resilience, developing a plan to protect critical infrastructure against climate threats and other hazards to the islands, promoting public health capacity, and establishing a restoration and hazard-removal program that supports the surveying, isolation and clearing of buried, abandoned and unexploded World War II ordnance and submerged vessels that pose a risk to the marine environment. To combat corruption, the bill proposes providing assistance to civil society and governments in Oceania, as well as using the Global Magnitsky Act to identify and sanction foreign individuals engaged in corrupt practices in Oceania that threaten economic and democratic progress.

Unlike the other two pieces of legislation, the Strategic Competition Act is focused on China. It originated in the Senate and has bipartisan support. The focus on the bill is on strengthening the US’s diplomatic and economic strategy in countering China. Additional features of the proposed legislation include a Quad intra-parliamentary working group, bringing together legislators from Australia, India, Japan and the US. It also promotes a deeper defence relationship between Japan and Australia that includes supporting reciprocal access agreements and trilateral United States–Japan–Australia intelligence sharing.

With regard to the Pacific islands, the bill specifically calls for drawing on Australian, New Zealand and Japanese expertise in the Pacific to assist in development of the region. The State Department is to create a strategic roadmap for Oceania that includes an analysis of opportunities to cooperate with Australia, New Zealand and Japan in addressing shared concerns and promoting shared goals in pursuit of security and resilience in Oceania.

While bipartisanship alone doesn’t guarantee passage, the fact that Democrats and Republicans can work together on the Pacific islands is noteworthy. The glue that binds the two sides together is competition with China, but the net result can be better and deeper US engagement in the region. In terms of development outcomes, this must surely be a plus.

A second notable thing about these bills concerns congressional efficiency. Unlike its parliamentary cousins, the US Congress, guided by American pluralism, is inefficient at converting proposed legislation into law. Only 2% of the legislation introduced in the 116th Congress became law. There’s no reason to believe the 117th will be any better. Where interests align, like over strategic competition with China, the probability of successful passage increases significantly. The very inefficiency of Congress means that when something does become law, it typically stays that way for a long time. Putting strategic competition into law underscores the view that the US sees this competition as long-term.

The proposed bills’ recognition, as a matter of law, of US allies and partners is also significant. Australia, Japan and New Zealand are named in the legislation. The Honoring Oceania Act and the Strategic Competition Act explicitly instruct the US secretary of state to work with these three countries in developing plans for engaging the Pacific islands.

Australia has played a helpful role in the writing these bills. Congressional staffers see Australia as a go-to resource when it comes to the Pacific island countries. The Australian embassy in Washington has played an important role in supporting the education of congressional members and their staff on Pacific island matters. For example, Australia helped develop the itinerary for congressional staff visiting Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands in 2019. Australia has acted as a channel or mediator for congressional staff and the island states. A senior Capitol Hill staffer commented that Australia had been ‘extremely helpful in connecting us [Congress] with all the right players at the various organizations and embassies’. At some point, a congressional delegation may again make its way to the islands, and when that happens look for Australia and New Zealand to offer a helping hand.

Of course, some in the Pacific may view Australia’s interventions as unwanted. A not unreasonable view is that a regional organisation like the Pacific Islands Forum could easily take on this role instead. Experience has shown, however, that the forum has not delivered on this front. According to one congressional staff member, when offered the opportunity to meet Pacific Island Caucus members in 2019, the islands at first agreed to do so, but then inexplicably pulled out at the last minute. This was a missed opportunity. From the congressional point of view, the Australians and New Zealanders are both accessible and keen to help.

Over the next few months, some language from all three bills will likely end up in one final piece of legislation. That legislation will, in all probability, be some version of the Strategic Competition Act. In practical terms, the US will have committed itself, by an act of Congress, to a deeper and more robust engagement in the Pacific. This will be significant for Washington. For Canberra, the added significance will be the fact that Australia will have used the legislative process to further its own interests of maintaining influence and a voice in US policy and legislative circles.