U.S. President Joe Biden launched his summit of Pacific Island nations on Monday with an apology and an acknowledgment. First, he gave his regrets for canceling a visit to Papua New Guinea earlier this year amid domestic political drama. And then he hailed U.S. diplomatic recognition of the Cook Islands and the tiny island nation of Niue.
Biden also focused on the dire, existential threat that these 18 nations have identified due to climate change, and pledged funds for climate assistance and toward infrastructure. In all, the White House said, Biden announced a slate of about $200 million in funding to “demonstrate the U.S. commitment to work together with the Pacific Islands to expand and deepen our cooperation in the years ahead.”
“We hear your warnings of a rising sea and that they pose an existential threat to your nations,” Biden said. “We hear your calls for reassurance that you never, never, never will lose your statehood or membership at the UN as result of the climate crisis.”
These 18 member states have been battlegrounds of colonial conquest for centuries. The Cook Islands, for instance, are named after the intrepid Captain James Cook — the British adventurer who violently conquered Indigenous lands across the wide expanse of the Pacific, from Australia to Canada — for the crown. His violent killing in 1779 by native Hawaiians is celebrated in Hawaii to this day.
By contrast, the U.S. has a better track record, said Gordon Peake, a senior adviser for the Pacific Islands at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
“The United States may have forgotten a little bit about the Pacific Islands over the last eight decades, but the Pacific Islands hasn't forgotten about the United States,” he said. “There's loads of residual goodwill from the United States from the Second World War.”
Perhaps as if to illustrate these deep, often personal ties, the leaders made a stop before coming to the White House, taking a special train from New York — where many had attended the United Nations General Assembly — to Baltimore, Maryland, to watch the Baltimore Ravens professional football team, home to some prominent Polynesian players and Hall of Famers.
But on the diplomatic playing field, Washington faces fierce competition. China recently inked a security pact with the Solomon Islands — a fact made even starker by the decision of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare to miss Monday’s White House meeting. He sent his foreign minister instead.
“The Pacific Islands themselves, several of them at least, are being quite clever, frankly, at playing China and Washington off against one another, or very simply advocating for themselves after a long period of time when nobody was paying attention,” said Bruce Jones, who studies the region at the Brookings Institution.
“Now, lots of countries are paying attention, and lots of countries have prepared to invest. And countries have handled that differently. Some have really moved towards a deeper relationship with China, like the Solomon Islands. Some are flirting with both sides, like Vanuatu. Some are doubling down on the relationships with the West, like Fiji. But it's an open game still, and the islands themselves have a lot of agency here and a lot of capacity to use this situation to gain greater attention and greater investment,” he said.
On Monday, Prime Minister Mark Brown of the Cook Islands emphasized the relationship his country seeks with the world’s superpower.
“We have an opportunity here as the Pacific Islands Forum and as the United States to develop our partnerships for prosperity,” he said.
But that’s not without peril, warned Cleo Paskal, an analyst who focuses on the Indo-Pacific region at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“By clustering the Pacific Islands as a group, the Biden administration ignores the vast differences between them,” she said. “That makes it easier for China to squeeze into those cracks and break some of them away.”
Analysts say that China’s increased ambitions in the Pacific are part of the calculation for the increased engagement by the United States, but not all of it.
“The United States is re-upping its game. Part of that, of course, is motivated by China. But I think it's keen to communicate that it's not solely motivated by countering Chinese influence,” Jones said.
“The big issue looming out there is our policy on climate change and climate adaptation. The United States has been one of the most recalcitrant countries in the world on looking at the question of financing for climate adaptation. If you're an island in the Pacific dealing with rapidly rising sea levels and storm surges and increase in frequency of major storms, climate adaptation is the issue. It’s existential. And so, that's the real front lines of the conversation between the Pacific Islands and the West, especially the United States,” he said.
But those who watch that wide expanse of ocean say there is one thing that the leader of the world’s wealthiest nation cannot promise: the actual money.
That’s up to Congress, the elected body that is currently embroiled in a political standoff over funding. If they don’t resolve that by the month’s end, the U.S. government will shut down.
“The U.S. made a lot of commitments last year in this first Pacific Islands summit — very sensible ideas, very sensible proposals,” Peake said. “The big challenge is, once it went up to Congress, things got snagged. And I think that's the issue — that all sorts of commitments that the White House makes in this or in anything else it is going to face — which is making sure that Congress approves it.”
The leaders will have a chance to discuss all this in November, when they meet — without Biden — in the Cook Islands.