Geopolitical competition and the 'U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit'
Tarcisius Kabutaulaka
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a working lunch at the
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a working lunch at the "U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit," at the State Department in Washington, D.C., U.S., September 28, 2022. /Getty

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a working lunch at the "U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit," at the State Department in Washington, D.C., U.S., September 28, 2022. /Getty

Editor's note: Tarcisius Kabutaulaka is an associate professor and former director of the Center for Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawaii. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily those of CGTN.

On September 28-29, U.S. President Joe Biden hosts Pacific Island leaders at the White House as part of the first "U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit." The White House says this demonstrates "the United States' deep and enduring partnership with Pacific Island countries and the Pacific region that is underpinned by shared history, values, and people-to-people ties."

But underlying this diplomatic rhetoric is the geopolitical competition that characterizes the current global order. The U.S. and its allies have taken Oceania as a site for geopolitical rivalry with China. Pacific countries are often expected to choose sides, or manage their relationship with competing powers without triggering diplomatic tripwires. In Washington, Pacific leaders may attempt to strengthen their ties with the U.S. while convincing the White House that their relationship with China is equally important. For the island countries, this is not a zero-sum game. Their challenge will be to ensure Pacific Islands' agendas are featured prominently in the discussions.

In the past two decades, Beijing's influence in the Pacific has grown. In September 2019, Solomon Islands and Kiribati severed diplomatic ties with China's Taiwan region in favor of China. In April this year, Beijing signed a security agreement with Solomon Islands. China has drummed-up its multilateral engagements through the China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers' Meetings.

Washington is concerned that China could displace the U.S. and its allies as the predominant power in Oceania. A report released on September 20 by the United States Institute of Peace, and whose co-authors include former senior military officials, states that, "Perhaps to a greater extent than any other geographic area, the Pacific Islands offer China a low-investment, high-reward opportunity to score symbolic, strategic, and tactical victories in pursuit of its global agenda." The U.S. and its allies have therefore made concerted efforts to counter Beijing's growing influence.

The Indo-Pacific Strategy frames the Biden administration's engagements with Indo-Pacific countries and its attempts to contain China's influence. There is also the U.S.-led Partners in the Blue Pacific (PBP) initiative which pledges to "support prosperity, security and resilience in the Pacific." While some welcome the PBP, there are concerns that it skirts established processes for regional decision-making and could undermine Pacific regionalism. The U.S. and its allies are pushing ahead with the initiative and courting Pacific Island countries to become partners. Last week a meeting of the PBP and Pacific Foreign Ministers in New York reiterated the PBP's commitments and announced Germany and Canada's inclusion.

The sky view of Solomon Islands. /CFP
The sky view of Solomon Islands. /CFP

The sky view of Solomon Islands. /CFP

Pacific leaders are cautious. At the New York meeting, Solomon Islands Foreign Minister called on the PBP countries to align themselves with the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific and stressed that Pacific countries must be "the drivers of their agendas." This echoes statements made at the Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders (PICL) meeting in Hawaii, where Micronesia's President David Panuelo says the 2050 Blue Pacific Strategy "will be a document ... the United States will have to pay close attention to as it encompasses all of our priorities." But one wonders whether, despite talks of finding common ground, the Indo-Pacific Strategy is incompatible with the Blue Pacific Strategy.

On September 27, the eve of the Washington summit, there was a report that Solomon Islands is refusing to sign the 11-point declaration between the U.S. and Pacific Island countries. This is a setback for the White House's attempts to ramp up its diplomatic, development and commercial presence in the region.

The U.S.'s geopolitical anxieties will feature prominently at the Washington Summit. But Pacific leaders must be treated as genuine partners, rather than pawns on Washington's geopolitical agenda. To strengthen and sustain this relationship, Washington needs to address issues important to the region. These are outlined in the 2050 Blue Pacific Strategy, especially climate change. As Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama stated in May 2022, "our greatest concern isn't geopolitics – it's climate change."

Pacific countries see China as an important development partner and not necessarily a security threat. It would therefore be counterproductive for Washington to frame its relationship with Pacific countries largely in terms of its competition with China.

Pacific countries will be looking for deliverables that Washington can offer, and whether the U.S. can maintain long-term relationships that will not change with shifting geopolitical interests or changes in domestic politics in Washington. While the Biden administration has expressed commitment to the region and promised resources, island countries will be looking for what will be delivered. Island leaders are aware that Washington's commitments could change if the Republicans take over the congressional majority in the 2022 midterm elections, or win the Presidential election in 2024.

At this first U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit, Pacific leaders must keep their eyes on the proverbial stars that will guide them to protecting the interests of the Blue Continent.

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