A U.S. presidential initiative to boost American support in the South Pacific is a reaction to the growing influence of China in the vast tract of tropical islands that have historically been under Western influence, experts say.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson responded positively Wednesday to the U.S. initiatives but also offered a note of caution.
“We are happy to see Pacific island countries receive more support for its development and vitalization from countries willing to do so,” ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said during a scheduled news briefing in Beijing. “This has always been China’s position. At the same time, we believe that all countries, when pursuing cooperation with Pacific island countries should … not target any third party or harm their interests.”
The Pacific’s small, often impoverished, archipelagic countries rely largely on aid and trade from larger nations.
Washington intends to establish embassies in the South Pacific nations of Kiribati and Tonga, the White House said in a statement Tuesday. U.S. President Joe Biden’s office said it is ready to ask Congress for $60 million per year for the next decade, about triple the current levels, to back maritime economic development.
The White House further intends to return the U.S. Peace Corps to Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu, citing progress toward reestablishing a U.S. Agency for International Development regional mission for the Pacific in Fiji.
At the Pacific Islands Forum in Suva, Fiji, on Wednesday, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris met virtually with Pacific island leaders to announce the new commitments. Those commitments will “deepen U.S. partnership with the region,” according to the Biden administration. The forum is a 51-year-old economic and military bloc spanning 18 states.
The return of the Peace Corps to the South Pacific, along with plans for embassies and an expansion of maritime security assistance, count as good news, said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative under the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Skeptics here and in the Pacific islands might say that all of that should have happened 10 years ago, and certainly we heard some of this floated during the Obama and Trump administrations,” Poling said. “But China’s activity in the region has finally woken Washington up to the fact that it [the U.S.] can’t take its place or that of its allies in the Pacific islands for granted anymore.”
Beijing signaled its intent in the South Pacific when it started the China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum in 2006. China calls that forum, which has been held three times, its highest-level trade and economic dialogue with the South Pacific.
Over the past year, China has shown increasing interest in the region, where it seeks to expand its naval influence and long-standing business interests, especially in fishing, experts have told VOA.
Beijing signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands in April and reached 52 “cooperation” deals after its foreign minister spoke with leaders from 17 South Pacific countries in May and June.
Old and new US role
Washington has influenced the South Pacific since just after World War II. Some Pacific islands are U.S. territory and others are close diplomatic allies. The U.S. government carried out 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958, sending fallout throughout the country.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama responded to China’s growing Asia-Pacific influence with his 2011 “pivot to Asia” policy but focused more on Asia than the Pacific, said Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, associate Pacific islands studies professor at University of Hawaii at Manoa. At this point, “it would be difficult to see what Washington, D.C., is doing without considering the China factor,” Kabutaulaka said.
In March, the State Department announced that the U.S. is renegotiating its compacts of free association with Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia. Compacts are meant to give the three South Pacific nations special economic and military protections.
Australia and New Zealand, both U.S. allies, are also key economic benefactors of the South Pacific. The U.S. government joined Australia, Britain, Japan and New Zealand last month in setting up a partnership called the Partners in the Blue Pacific that further targets interests in the South Pacific.
China is motivating the U.S. push to renew those compacts as they come due beginning next year, Kabutaulaka said.
South Pacific nations will eventually benefit, free of political risk, by accepting overtures from both China and the United States, said Satu Limaye, vice president of the East-West Center research organization in Honolulu.
“Some of the smaller states may have both bureaucratic and capacity problems, but they won’t [be] so inundated with absorptive capacity problems that they won’t be able to manage relations,” Limaye said.
Limaye said Biden’s plans for the Pacific will “take time” to come to fruition as officials seek congressional approval, find money and staff embassies.