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US on back foot with Pacific island nations as Washington convenes leaders’ summit

President Joe Biden’s summit with Pacific island leaders this week is meant to show a deeper U.S. commitment to a region that is increasingly turning to China to meet its development needs, officials and analysts say.

The Sept. 28-29 meetings will be the first-ever Washington summit for leaders of Pacific island nations. But it will need solid outcomes to overcome skepticism that U.S. attention to Pacific island nations is reactive rather than enduring, observers say.

“We’ve seen quite a few attempts from the U.S. recently to speak the language of the Pacific, to demonstrate their commitment to the Pacific. But so far that has been lacking in any significant substance,” Mihai Sora, a Pacific analyst at Australia’s Lowy Institute and a former diplomat in the region, told BenarNews.

Over two decades, China has become an important source of infrastructure, loans and aid for Pacific island nations as it seeks to isolate Taiwan diplomatically and gain regional allies in international organizations such as the United Nations. Remote, prone to natural disasters and lagging in economic development, the Pacific island countries have welcomed China’s assistance as easier to obtain and meeting the needs of their people.

Some analysts say Beijing also hopes to establish a military presence in the Pacific in a challenge to U.S. dominance. Earlier this year it signed a pact with the Solomon Islands that would allow it to send security forces to protect Chinese interests in those islands.

American involvement in the region diminished after the breakup of the Soviet Union, with a reduction in embassies and U.S. development assistance through its Peace Corps agency.

Pacific leaders say their top concern is the climate and they don’t want to be forced to take sides in the U.S.-China rivalry.

Rising sea levels and more extreme weather linked to higher average global temperatures threatens many low-lying Pacific nations. Tuvalu, made up of nine coral islands and home to some 12,000 people, fears it will be submerged this century.

“For us the most important security issue is climate change. It is not China, it is not the U.S., it is about climate change,” said Siaosi Sovaleni, the prime minister of Tonga.

“We are facing, on an annual basis, extreme weather events. It used to be once every five years,” he told a conference at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in the lead up to the summit.

David Panuelo, president of the Federated States of Micronesia, said he hoped the summit would result in greater Peace Corps involvement in the region – as already promised by the U.S. – a larger contribution to protection of vast Pacific fisheries and more climate finance. 

“In order to be considered a success, the U.S.-Pacific Summit must see the return of the U.S. Peace Corps to the FSM and other Pacific Islands,” he said in an email to BenarNews. “The summit must result in additional commitments from the U.S. on helping the Pacific prevent, mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change.” 

Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo (center) is pictured at a welcoming ceremony for a Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Suva, Fiji, July 12, 2022. Credit: AFP

U.S. officials are aware they are on the back foot.

Kurt Campbell, the White House’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, acknowledged that rivalry with China is behind renewed U.S. attention to the Pacific island countries. However, U.S. leaders also recognize the region had been neglected, he said during the same conference at Carnegie.

“In the past we have perhaps paid lesser attention to these critical places than we should have. I think being honest about that is important,” he said.

“This is a region that has been disappointed before. Sometimes expectations get raised, they’re unfulfilled. We understand the bar is high and I think what we’re going to try to do is fulfill those expectations,” Campbell said. 

According to Sora, of the Lowy Institute, there are numerous ways for the United States to show a long-term commitment to the Pacific including with new initiatives and scaling up some of its existing but small-scale involvement.

“There’s definitely room for the U.S. to demonstrate in some meaningful way that it’s committed to the region and that it’s committed to the region for the long term,” Sora said by phone.

“A huge vulnerability for the U.S. right now is the regional perception that U.S. interest in the Pacific is only as a reaction to China’s increasing influence and presence.”

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated news service.



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