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Against this background, the three freely associated states — the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands — have been negotiating the terms of an extension of their com-pacts of free association with the United States, due to expire in 2023. A recent RAND Corporation study of Chinese influence in the islands notes the strategic importance of the three states, arguing that they are “tantamount to a power projection superhighway, running through the heart of the North Pacific into Asia. It effectively connects US military forces in Hawaii to those in theatre, par-ticularly to forward operating positions on the US territory of Guam.”
Despite his diplomatic postings across the southwest Pacific, Steven McGann acknowledges that US security interests are focused in the Micronesian states. “It’s clear that the United States has an overriding interest in the north Pacific,” he said. “But as it renegotiates the compacts of free asso-ciation it also needs to investigate how it strengthens the existing treaties with Kiribati.” The com-pacts of free association forbid the island states from allowing foreign military forces to enter their territory without US permission. “Taken together, the security and defence provisions of the com-pacts form an essential foundation for US national security interests in the region,” says the RAND study.
The strategic importance of these northern Pacific island nations came to a head in February dur-ing an online summit of the Pacific Islands Forum. After their joint candidate for the post of Forum secretary-general was rejected, Nauru, Kiribati and the three freely associated states — all mem-bers of the Micronesian Presidents’ Summit — announced they would withdraw from the regional organisation. Although the five Micronesian countries have diverse colonial histories and con-temporary partnerships, they are united by cultural connections, shared memories of Japanese invasion and US nuclear testing, and the economic interests created by their vast ocean territories.
U.S officials often see this crisis through the prism of US–China competition and conflict between Beijing and Taiwan. (Last month, Palau’s new president, Surangel Whipps Jr, made a state visit to Taiwan, accompanied by the US ambassador to Palau.) As Alex Gray wrote in February, the Unit-ed States, Australia and New Zealand should watch with “grave concern” the “unfolding disman-tlement” of the Pacific Islands Forum. “Not only does a diminished PIF mean a diminished voice for the Pacific islands on the world stage, it also means the central multilateral institution in this critical region will lose the very voices most sceptical of Beijing’s malign activity and open to US and allied leadership. A PIF without Micronesian voices is likely to be one far less interested in US priorities and perspectives.”
In the past, budget cuts in Canberra and Wellington have downgraded programs in the freely associated states and American territories like Guam. Despite new diplomatic postings under Aus-tralia’s “step-up” and New Zealand’s “reset,” the ANZUS allies still perceive the northern Pacific as America’s turf, a reality acknowledged by Surangel Whipps: “As we know, it’s always been the position of Australia and New Zealand that the north Pacific is ‘Oh, you’re with the United States, you’re kind [of] over there, we stick together in the south.’ It wasn’t about the Pacific brother-hood, let’s bring the Pacific together. It was about ‘We are going to protect our region.’”
Three months into its term, the Biden administration is promising to continue Trump’s engagement, though with more diplomacy, multilateralism and alliance building. Recognising China’s in-creased profile in the region, Ambassador McGann suggested that Australia and New Zealand needed support. “The United States is moving away from an ‘I’ll hold your coat’ position to much more active engagement,” he said, “largely because there are national security reasons for do-ing so.”
The Biden administration has yet to prepare a full national security strategy to guide its foreign policy. It has, however, issued an “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance,” which, among many global priorities, pledges to recognise “the ties of shared history and sacrifice,” to “reinforce our partnership with Pacific Island states.”
A fundamental difference between this administration and its predecessor is climate policy. “We will move swiftly to earn back our position of leadership in international institutions,” says the inter-im guidance, “joining with the international community to tackle the climate crisis and other shared challenges. We have already re-entered the Paris Climate Accord and appointed a Presi-dential Special Envoy for climate, the first steps toward restoring our leadership.”
Biden’s choice of Deb Haaland as secretary of the interior is significant, given her department is responsible for liaison with the freely associated states in the Pacific as well as America’s First Na-tions tribes. (This is the first time a First Nations woman has held a US cabinet post, and stands in sharp contrast to her Trump-era predecessors, including Ryan Zinke, a Montana businessman who resigned in the midst of justice department investigations of his conduct in office).
The congressional BLUE Pacific bill lapsed after the 2020 presidential elections, but congressman Ed Case continues this work under the Biden administration. Once the bill has been improved in consultation with congressional figures and the White House, he says, it will be reintroduced “on a bicameral, bipartisan basis.”
The key official driving Asia-Pacific policy will be Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council’s new Indo-Pacific affairs coordinator. Campbell served under Barack Obama as assistant secre-tary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs between 2009 and 2013, and was a key architect of Obama’s “Pacific pivot” strategy. “The Biden National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific team is set to be the largest in the NSC, with up to twenty officials in the directorate once it’s fully staffed,” says Foreign Policy magazine. “Personnel is policy, as the age-old Washington aphorism goes, and the new president has made clear that China is the top national security challenge for the United States.” The shift was confirmed when US secretary of state Antony Blinken described the U.S relationship with China as “the biggest geopolitical test of the twenty-first century” in his first major foreign policy speech on 03 March.
Meeting for the first time at leaders’ level, last month’s summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dia-logue, or Quad, boosted ties between the United States, India, Japan and Australia. The Quad communiqué highlighted a “shared vision for the free and open Indo-Pacific” and flagged joint action on climate change, cyber security, Covid-19 recovery and vaccine distribution — adding to existing geopolitical jousting over Covid support to Pacific island states.
Ten days after the summit, on 22 March, the Biden White House announced the Small and Less Populous Island Economies Initiative, designed to strengthen US collaboration with island coun-tries and territories in the Pacific, Caribbean and North Atlantic (despite the different demogra-phy, geography and colonial history of the three regions). The U.S state department has also launched a tender for a project to promote investigative journalism and anti-corruption efforts in Pacific island countries, in line with its “vision of a secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific.” (It will be interesting to see how explicitly Pacific journalists will be encouraged to look at corrupt relations between island politicians and Chinese state-owned enterprises.)
This all adds up to lots of noise, but will the initiatives be sustained? Island leaders have seen it all before: more than three decades ago, congressman Stephen Solarz led a commission on islands policy, arguing that the Pacific should remain an “American lake” in the post-Soviet era. Solarz’s May 1990 report proposed that the United States should play the role of “balancer,” providing regional order and stability through “forward deployed” US forces. Little has changed except the main strategic rival.
Later that year, as the United States began to celebrate its triumph over the crumbling Soviet Un-ion, president George H.W. Bush met Pacific island leaders in Hawaii, pledging economic and commercial opportunities. A Joint Commercial Commission was opened with great fanfare in Hawaii. As the years wore on, however, yet another US commission revealed the JCC to be a failure, with little new US investment or trade in the islands.
Fast-forward to Barack Obama’s “pivot” to the region, and Hillary Clinton’s attendance at the Pacific Islands Forum in 2012 — a first-ever appearance by a US secretary of state. Despite her many pledges, the Obama pivot was focused on Asia rather than the islands, and the follow-through was limited.
Through the waning years of the Soviet Union, successive U.S administrations warned that “the Russians are coming” to the Pacific, a catchcry echoed by conservative Australian and New Zea-land think tanks. Three decades later, the Chinese (unlike their Soviet predecessors) are a major trading partner for many island nations and a significant source of grants and loans. China’s state-owned enterprises are looking to the Pacific islands for timber, minerals and fisheries, even as Beijing seeks more votes at the United Nations. Given the failures of China’s own environmen-tal regulation, “the China alternative” is worrying environmentalists and human rights activists across the Pacific. Island leaders, meanwhile, welcome the leverage provided by this “non-traditional” partner, which has seen Canberra open the purse strings at a time of historically low aid budgets.
Will the Biden administration follow through on its intentions more vigorously than its predeces-sors? Changes in US climate policy are winning friends, but the remilitarisation of the islands holds little attraction for countries still dealing with the radioactive legacy of US nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands and Kiribati, or the unexploded ordinance that still litters the region from the last time Washington took on a rising Asian power…..PACNEWS
Reporting for this article was supported by a Sean Dorney Grant for Pacific Journalism through the Walkley Public Fund.