MELBOURNE(INSIDE STORY)—Fearful of growing Chinese influence, the Trump White House pledged increased engagement with the Pacific islands. Will Joe Biden follow suit?
During a regional tour to promote US strategic policy in Oceania in March 2019, Matt Pottinger stopped off in the Solomon Islands capital, Honiara. As Asia director of the U.S National Security Council, he met with Taiwan’s vice-minister of foreign affairs, Hsu Szu-chien, to discuss a common concern: would a new Solomon Islands government shift diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing?
Pottinger was travelling with Alexander Gray, the NSC’s newly appointed director for Oceania and Indo-Pacific Security. Gray’s appointment was a first: never before had a U.S administration appointed a White House NSC official responsible not only for Australia and New Zealand but also for the Pacific islands.
The White House’s concern was justified. Six months after the visit, Solomon Islands prime minister Manasseh Sogavare announced his country would end its long relationship with Taiwan in favour of diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic. Days later, President Taneti Maamau of Kiribati followed suit, leaving Taiwan with just four diplomatic partners in the region. Donald Trump, already in the midst of his trade war with China, announced that the United States would engage more deeply with the Pacific islands.
The Biden administration looks likely to try to maintain this outreach. Island leaders have welcomed the new U.S president’s early commitments on development funding in the region and his decision to rejoin the Paris agreement on climate change. But they’re aware that Biden’s Pacific strategy is largely driven by the US defence department, and that his emerging “Indo-Pacific” policy is focused less on island nations than on India, Australia, Japan and other larger strategic partners.
Island leaders are particularly worried that they will be trampled in the intensified competition between the United States and China. Some of them are voicing fears that the new Western-initiated strategic concept of the “Indo-Pacific” will downplay the region’s own security priorities. “The big powers are doggedly pursuing strategies to widen and extend their reach and inculcating a far-reaching sense of insecurity,” says Samoan prime minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi. “The renewed vigour with which a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ strategy is being advocated and pursued leaves us with much uncertainty. For the Pacific, there is a real risk of privileging ‘Indo’ over the ‘Pacific.’”
Donald Trump’s foreign policy failures were many, but his administration did bolster staffing and resources for Pacific island engagement. To promote the administration’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy, Matt Pottinger and Alex Gray intensified White House engagement with security and intelligence officials in Australia and New Zealand, and — in an unprecedented move for National Security Council officials — visited Canberra, Wellington, Port Vila and Honiara in early 2019.
Pottinger also played a key role in preparing the top-secret 2018 “US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific,” which was unexpectedly declassified during Trump’s final chaotic days in office. Prioritising strategic competition with China, the strategy aimed to strengthen ties to India, Japan, Korea and Australia and “ensure the Pacific Islands (e.g. the US territories, Freely Associated States, the Melanesian and Polynesian states) remain aligned with United States.” (The freely associated states, which have a formal compact with the United States, are the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands.) Among its action proposals were efforts to “solidify our diplomatic, military, intelligence, economic, development assistance, and informational advantages across the Pacific Islands.” The sentence immediately after these words was redacted.
Even as the Trump administration deepened its trade war with Beijing, Australia and New Zealand were becoming increasingly concerned about growing Chinese influence in the islands region. Both ANZUS allies were working on the “step change” in engagement proposed by prime minister Malcolm Turnbull at the 2016 Pacific Islands Forum in Pohnpei.
Three months after deposing Turnbull in August 2018, Scott Morrison announced his own “Pacific step-up” in a major speech at Lavarack army barracks in Townsville. To complement the intensified US engagement, Morrison outlined a range of economic, diplomatic and military policies. Major focuses were infrastructure investment and defence cooperation, including new aircraft and patrol boats under the Pacific Maritime Security Programme, a new Australia Pacific Security College and a new Pacific Fusion Centre for real-time intelligence sharing. Despite its policy differences with Washington, Jacinda Ardern’s government in New Zealand also expanded its “Pacific reset.”
Coinciding with these efforts by the ANZUS allies were media scares about purported Chinese bases in Vanuatu and French Polynesia, and propaganda about Chinese “debt-trap diplomacy.” (The latter has since been debunked by studies showing that most Pacific debt is owed to the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank.)
Despite the hyperbole, the growing concern that Pacific Islands Forum countries are engaged in “South–South” cooperation with China is not misplaced. Over the past two decades, Beijing has expanded its economic links with island nations to the point that even Micronesian countries aligned with Taiwan — including Palau and the Marshall Islands — trade extensively with China and receive investment from Chinese corporations.
One of the United States’ northern Pacific allies, the Federated States of Micronesia, has long maintained diplomatic ties to the People’s Republic of China rather than Taiwan. In early 2017, the island nation’s president at the time, Peter Christian, was welcomed to Beijing by president Xi Jinping and accorded a full military review outside the Great Hall of the People. “China was impressive,” Christian said later. “If that’s the way they welcome other countries, we were flattered. I was flattered that for a small country they would exhibit such formality.”
Christian’s state visit was one of Beijing’s many diplomatic exchanges with Pacific nations since 2000 (though these have actually declined in number over the past decade). After visiting Fiji in 2014, Xi Jinping made his second visit to the Pacific islands in November 2018, attending the APEC Summit in Port Moresby along with US vice-president Mike Pence. With US and Chinese diplomats battling over trade policy, the summit ended without a formal communiqué. Pence joined Australia’s Scott Morrison and Japan’s Shinzo Abe to offer infrastructure funding to the islands in competition with China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Concerned by Xi’s high-profile engagement, the Trump administration launched a series of diplomatic initiatives across the islands, proposing new diplomatic posts and sending defence attachés to Fiji, the Federated States of Micronesia and Papua New Guinea. In January 2019, US Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats issued the intelligence community’s Worldwide Threat Assessment, which charged that “China is currying favour with numerous Pacific Island nations through bribery, infrastructure investment and diplomatic engagement.”
On 21 May 2019, Trump held an unprecedented Oval Office meeting with the then presidents of the three freely associated states: Palau’s Tommy Remengesau Jr, the Marshall Islands’ Hilda Heine and the Federated States of Micronesia’s David Panuelo.
Later that year, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo visited Australia and Micronesia, including a first-ever visit to the Federated States of Micronesia by a secretary of state on 5 August. The same month, US interior secretary David Bernhardt led an interagency delegation to the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu. Bernhardt stressed US action on climate change and oceans management — a sharp contrast with his predecessor Ryan Zinke, a former Navy SEAL who hectored the 2018 Forum meeting in Nauru about the strategic threat from China and the blood shed by US marines across Micronesia during the second world war.
The new White House engagement was also reflected in Congress. In 2019, congressman Ed Case of Hawaii co-founded the bipartisan Congressional Pacific Islands Caucus to raise awareness about the region in the US Capitol. In short order, the caucus introduced the Boosting Long-term US Engagement in the Pacific, or BLUE Pacific, bill, which proposed a comprehensive, long-term US islands strategy, an expanded diplomatic presence, greater US security and law enforcement cooperation, diversified trade and strengthened people-to-people relationships.
Then, in September 2019, the Trump administration announced a “Pacific pledge” of US$100 million in additional aid, an increased security presence in some countries, Peace Corps deployments, and revived USAID programmes and staffing in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau. As an alternative to China’s infrastructure programs, the United States also made an initial grant to the Asian Development Bank’s Pacific Region Infrastructure Facility, including US$23 million to a joint Papua New Guinea Electrification Partnership with Australia, Japan and New Zealand.
For all this, the administration’s overtures to Pacific nations were undercut by Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement and stop payments to the Green Climate Fund. In November 2019, Pacific Islands Forum chair Kausea Natano stressed that withdrawal from global climate action undermined the United States’ credibility in the Pacific: “Statements of friendship, expanded aid programs and high-level visits,” he said, “must be better backed by domestic policies and action to reduce emissions, as outlined in the Paris agreement, in order to avert a climate catastrophe.”
Wolf-warrior diplomacy by Pence and Pompeo also reinforced scepticism about Washington’s real interest in island affairs. “The United States and Australia are neighbours, united rather than divided by the vast emptiness of Pacific waters,” Pompeo declared in Canberra during an August 2019 visit, erasing the history, heritage and identity of the Pacific islanders who inhabit that “vast emptiness.” As Pacific Islands Forum secretary-general Dame Meg Taylor remarked at the time, Pompeo’s comment “stands in stark contrast to histories of Pacific people and the Blue Pacific,” a regional effort to resituate the Pacific in international affairs.
To counter the perceived challenge posed by the Chinese military, Mike Pence’s bombastic APEC speech in 2018 proposed more U.S military deployments, war games and bases in the region. “We’re forging new and renewed security partnerships, as shown by our recent trilateral naval exercises with India and Japan,” he said. “Today, it’s my privilege to announce that the United States will partner with Papua New Guinea and Australia on their joint initiative at Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island. We will work with these nations to protect sovereignty and maritime rights of the Pacific islands as well.”
The U.S Pacific Command has long held responsibility for military operations across the Indian and Pacific Oceans, but the point was underlined when it was renamed “the Indo-Pacific Command” in June 2018. It now seeks to upgrade the US base network spanning the northern Pacific from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii to Naval Base Guam, which dates back to the late nineteenth century. Under Joint Region Marianas, a navy-led joint command, the Pentagon also operates Andersen Air Force Base on Guam and military facilities on Tinian and Saipan in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The US base network in the northern Pacific is complemented by new marine and air force rotations through northern Australia.
In the Republic of the Marshall Islands, a Military Use and Operating Rights Agreement guarantees separate funding outside the U.S-RMI compact of free association. Kwajalein Atoll hosts the US Air Force Space Fence program and the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site.
Despite U.S aircraft carriers becoming vectors for the spread of the coronavirus, U.S military forces have ramped up deployments and war games across the region, including RIMPAC 2020 and Cope North 2021. Even as the United States and Australia agreed to upgrade Papua New Guinea’s Lombrum naval facilities, Palau has begun discussions with Washington about hosting US forces. “Palau’s request to the US military remains simple: build joint-use facilities, then come and use them regularly,” then president Tommy Remengesau said last September.
While welcoming U.S and Australian investment in wharfs and facilities, most island leaders have long sought to redirect resources to tackling more pressing security concerns, including the existential challenge of climate change. Steven McGann, former US ambassador to Fiji, Nauru, Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Kingdom of Tonga, highlighted this tension during a recent webinar on Pacific regionalism. “The United States is always searching for mechanisms in which all of its interests can be combined and also meet the growing needs of Indo-PACOM” — Indo-Pacific Command — “which has to figure out how to pursue the national security objectives of the United States with the human security concerns of Pacific islanders.” (To be continued)

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