Inside Story

The Americans are coming

Fearful of growing Chinese influence, the Trump White House pledged increased engagement with the Pacific islands. Will Joe Biden follow suit?

Nic Maclellan 15 April 2021 3628 words

Island leaders have welcomed Joe Biden’s commitments on development aid and his decision to rejoin the Paris agreement. Anna Moneymaker/EPA

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 US 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 US 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 US 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 programs 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 US 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 US 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 US-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 US aircraft carriers becoming vectors for the spread of the coronavirus, US 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 US 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.”

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 compacts 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, particularly 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 association it also needs to investigate how it strengthens the existing treaties with Kiribati.” The compacts 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 compacts 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 during 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 members of the Micronesian Presidents’ Summit — announced they would withdraw from the regional organisation. Although the five Micronesian countries have diverse colonial histories and contemporary 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.

US 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 United States, Australia and New Zealand should watch with “grave concern” the “unfolding dismantlement” 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 Australia’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 brotherhood, 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 increased 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 doing 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 interim 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 Presidential 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 Nations 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 secretary 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 US relationship with China as “the biggest geopolitical test of the twenty-first century” in his first major foreign policy speech on 3 March.

Meeting for the first time at leaders’ level, last month’s summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, 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 countries and territories in the Pacific, Caribbean and North Atlantic (despite the different demography, geography and colonial history of the three regions). The US 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 Union, 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 US administrations warned that “the Russians are coming” to the Pacific, a catchcry echoed by conservative Australian and New Zealand 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 environmental 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 predecessors? 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. •

Reporting for this article was supported by a Sean Dorney Grant for Pacific Journalism through the Walkley Public Fund.