Authors: Terence Wesley-Smith, University of Hawai’i at Manoa, and Gerard A Finin, Georgetown University
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s 12 February 2022 visit to Fiji for a virtual summit with Pacific leaders occurred shortly after the White House released its new Indo-Pacific Strategy. Blinken made no mention of China in his public comments, and, to its credit, the strategy minimises China-bashing to focus on a positive vision for the region under continued US stewardship.
Yet unlike the 2021 interim strategy that conceded the need to ‘chart a new course’, the document does not signal a significant break from the past. It was not lost on the Pacific audience that the visitors had come directly from a meeting of the Quad, a regional grouping whose entire rationale is to curb rising Chinese influence. The leaders may have wondered if Washington’s seemingly uncompromising desire to preserve US regional hegemony might ultimately prove incompatible with Blinken’s assurance that they alone will be able to choose ‘who they partner with’.
Blinken’s team understands that Pacific leaders are unlikely to be swayed by attempts to frame China purely as a bad actor, since their interactions have been generally positive. They also regard climate change, not China, as their primary security threat. Nor are the leaders necessarily impressed by appeals to shared values, since not all US partners are shining examples of liberal democracy. The emphasis on human rights and a ‘rules-based order’ also rings hollow in the wake of failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, drone strikes of dubious legality and the continued operation of the Guantanamo Bay offshore prison facility.
Perhaps the most striking example of US hypocrisy in a region of self-described large ocean states is regular US criticism of China for violating the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, when Washington itself has never ratified this UN convention.
Despite these reservations, the US pitch in Fiji was welcomed because it highlighted issues of immediate concern to island leaders, such as climate change, illegal fishing and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the question was whether the United States could follow through on its commitments, given inconsistency on climate change policy, as well as the episodic and fleeting nature of high-level US attention. They remember the lack of follow-up to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s participation in the 2012 Pacific Islands Forum in the Cook Islands, as well as the Obama administration’s largely vacuous Asia Pacific pivot.
Moreover, significant bilateral issues dating back more than a half century remain unresolved. These include unexploded American ordnance from World War II, and the troubling health and environmental legacies of nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands.
While US officials downplay the China threat with Pacific leaders, they take the opposite tack in Washington. US National Security Council staff recognise that raising the Pacific’s profile domestically in order to mobilise resources requires emphasising competition with China as a zero-sum challenge to US global power.
One danger of such tactics is that they become self-fulfilling, dimming the prospects for much needed cooperation with China on issues of particular concern in Oceania, including climate change, nuclear proliferation and pandemic response. Even with such overt strategic framing of competition with China, the bitterly divided US Congress has yet to act on major legislation, including Biden’s Build Back Better initiative, and the Ensuring American Global Leadership and Engagement (EAGLE) Act, designed to bolster US economic, technological and diplomatic assets.
In addition, despite promises of an expanded Peace Corps presence, infrastructure development and enhanced educational opportunities for students, the Biden administration still has little to show for its Pacific Initiatives.
Perhaps most significant is the stalled progress on renewing the economic provisions of US compacts of free association with the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia and Palau. Due to expire in 2023 (2024 for Palau), the compacts are described in the Indo-Pacific Strategy as ‘the bedrock of the US role in the Pacific’. Insiders blame the impasse on the difficulty of focusing the many federal agencies involved, the lack of Pacific expertise in US government bureaucracy, as well as COVID-19 related travel restrictions.
The administration recognises that establishing a better on the ground presence in the region is essential for improved relations and seeks to open as many as four new embassies starting in Solomon Islands. A lesson for the United States suggested by New Zealand’s diplomatic missions is that a small representational footprint with skilful soft power diplomacy may be more effective than fortress-like mega-embassies. Pending the deployment of additional resources, the United States remains only superficially engaged in the South Pacific.
The polite scepticism with which Pacific leaders may have listened to Mr Blinken might not stem from the inherent contradictions of the US position, any impulse to see the United States falter, or their own desire to interact with China. Rather, it is likely grounded in a clear-eyed understanding of the challenges a lumbering empire faces as it attempts to revitalise its own economy, democracy and regional alliances in order to extend what has been described as its exceptional ‘unipolar moment’.
Domestic gridlock and attention to developments in Europe will undoubtedly continue to frustrate the administration’s ability to progress its Indo-Pacific agenda. Perhaps more important is the need to skilfully navigate the uncomfortable reality of China’s increasing regional clout, bearing in mind the reluctance of the Pacific Islands and other countries in the region to become entangled in escalating geopolitical competition.
Terence Wesley-Smith is the former director of the Center for Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa.
Gerard A Finin is the former director of the Pacific Islands Development Program at the East–West Center, Hawai‘i, and is currently affiliated with the Centre for Australian, New Zealand, and Pacific Studies at Georgetown University.
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