WASHINGTON – The Pacific island states have never been at the center of geopolitical discussion. The names of the 14 Pacific Island Countries and Territories (PICTs) — nations such as Fiji, Kiribati, Palau and Samoa — may evoke a romanticized image of a remote paradise in the Pacific, but certainly not as a point of strategic importance.
Not anymore. Pacific island countries have become front and center in the geopolitical arena among the major democracies in the Asia-Pacific — the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Japan — as China steps up its geopolitical chess game in its quest for regional primacy.
The U.S., which had long taken the region for granted as the backyard of Hawaii, has begun to take the Pacific island states more seriously, at least outwardly. This May, then-acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan expressed his country’s gratitude to Pacific island nations in remarks at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, crediting the island states’ help in “upholding a free and open Indo-Pacific, and enabling U.S. regional presence.” That month, President Donald Trump met with the presidents of Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands at the White House for the first time ever as a sitting president.
Australia, which has close ties with the Pacific island states due to its geographic proximity, is also looking to further strengthen its relationship with the region. Despite differences of opinion on climate change, immigration and refugees, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been pushing Australia’s “Pacific step-up” plan. The plan envisions the establishment of a dedicated office in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, a $2 billion infrastructure initiative and the installation of five new diplomatic missions in the Cook Islands, French Polynesia, Niue, Palau and the Marshall Islands.
New Zealand is making a similar diplomatic push. Wellington has sent more than 10 new diplomats to Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Kiribati since the beginning of this year, and has also increased its diplomatic presence in Hawaii, as it has been coming back to the U.S. alliance network as a part of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing community.
Finally, Japan, which has long had relations with the Pacific nations as a major maritime nation and provider of aid, is pushing a renewed effort to increase its presence. While Japan had just two embassies in the region in 1987, it now has eight and another is scheduled to open next year in Vanuatu. Japan has also hosted the triennial Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting (PALM) to establish closer coordination on stability and prosperity of the region.
In August, then-Foreign Minister Taro Kono visited Fiji, Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands. It was the first visit to the region by a Japanese foreign minister in 32 years. Kono highlighted Tokyo’s efforts to promote exchange between Japan and the Pacific nations, citing the fact that more than 10,000 Pacific Islanders participated in various training programs and more than 3,700 Japanese experts visited the region for human resource development.
Lurking behind the renewed interest in the region is an increasingly assertive China. Beijing has been rapidly increasing its diplomatic, economic and military footprint and influence among the Pacific island nations through economic aid, infrastructure investment, cultural and educational exchanges, expatriates and its anti-Taiwan campaign. China’s three primary motives are worth noting.
On the diplomatic front, China has been steadily gaining friends among Pacific Island nations with promises of economic development.In September, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati severed their ties with Taiwan and established diplomatic relations with China. Taiwan is now down to just four Pacific allies. Beijing was quick to invite the Solomon Islands and Kiribati to the third China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum, which was held in Samoa in October.
On the national security front, China may build military facilities on some of the islands. A leading candidate is Vanuatu, which is located in Australia’s backyard. Should that become reality, Vanuatu would not only become a lookout post vis-a-vis Australia for China, but also a frontline base as an extension of the so-called Second Island Chain. Vanuatu could become the southernmost point of the chain beginning from Iwo Jima, through Guam and Saipan, to Papua New Guinea. That would be a significant development as the extended Second Island Chain would almost reach out to the Third Island Chain, thus establishing an imaginary cutoff line between the U.S. and Australia.
It is notable that China has already developed a formidable blue-ocean navy capable of freely operating in the western Pacific. In 2014, Australians were astonished when a Chinese naval fleet demonstrated its capacity to easily deploy for a prolonged period in the Indian Ocean about 1,000 miles northwest of Perth in search of the missing Malaysian airliner MH370.
With regard to natural resources, China has been aggressively taking advantage of fishing resources in the region. As China has depleted resources in the waters near the coast to feed increasingly demanding consumers at home, the Pacific island region presents opportunities in its vast, rich waters.
For the U.S. and its allies, their attention is on the pursuit of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” The Pacific island nations are strategically located south of Hawaii, home of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, making the region another area crucial to the interests of Washington and its allies, similar to the East China Sea and South China Sea.
Alex Gray, former Director for Oceania & Indo-Pacific Security at the U.S. National Security Council, summarized that the White House’s policy is to stress the sovereignty of the island nations and the importance of the rule of law, governing territorial claims, mineral development, fisheries and contracts.
But for all of the four democracies’ renewed efforts to engage with them, the Pacific island nations have not reciprocated with enthusiasm.
First, the U.S. message of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” does not resonate much in the minds of the Pacific island countries in comparison to the short-term benefits that China presents. That’s in spite of the potential long-term consequences, such as a possible debt trap, questionable construction quality and environmental degradation. Many leaders in the Indo-Pacific region, including those of the Pacific island nations, have begun to feel Asia is an afterthought for Trump, as he was a no-show at the ASEAN East Asia Summit two years in a row.
Second, while the U.S. has solid relationships with the so-called Compact of Free Association (COFA) — Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau — its presence in the region is limited. The most visible signs of an American presence in the area are offered by a small number of diplomats, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Third and most importantly, Washington’s vision for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” is not fully aligned with the issues that Pacific island nations care most about, such as the environment, pollution, climate change, natural disasters, ocean connectivity, sustainable economic development, illegal fishing, trafficking of humans and drugs, unlicensed mineral exploitation and other broad human security issues.
The U.S. and its allies have a good place to start making geopolitical inroads. The Pacific Island Forum, the region’s most comprehensive organization to discuss political and economic issues, endorsed the “Blue Pacific Identity.” The identity reflects a strong regionalism consisting of “a common sense of identity and purpose, leading progressively to the sharing of institutions, resources, and market.”
Japan has a unique role to play here as a key ally of the U.S. and as an Asian nation with a long, continuing involvement in the Pacific island nations. Japan is well-positioned to sustainably help the nations address their needs based on the rule of law by tying together two concepts: the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” and the “Blue Pacific Identity.”
That would be a way to treat the Pacific Island nations as equals, not as mere subordinates, in maintaining the liberal order in the region. Japan had some success in doing so in the PALM8 by discussing the idea of Free, Open and Sustainable Oceans as a core agenda point, which was supported by COFA, Papua New Guinea and Fiji.
Japan can also emphasize the benefits of economic development and environment sustenance through the values it espouses: rule of law, quality infrastructure and human security. It would complement the joint concept of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” and the “Blue Pacific Identity,” and allow Japan to help the U.S. to develop these efforts into strategic partnership focusing on protecting liberal world order with other like-minded nations in the region.
The Pacific island nations are well aware of the power struggle developing in their region. The challenges that they face are many, serious and urgent. They know they cannot effectively tackle these challenges without collaboration with and support from major nations.
These countries are not interested in choosing between China’s “Belt and Road initiative” and a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” What these nations are looking for are true partners who can help them overcome issues that threaten their existence.
Satohiro Akimoto is chairman and president of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA.
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