If you are trying to find traces of the United States’ long and layered ties with the Pacific Islands in the American capital, you need to look hard.
Apart from the names of iconic battles chiseled into the Washington Mall’s World War II memorial, evidence of the country’s complex Pacific history stretching back to the beginning of the Republic is not there.
Until recently, this absence was replicated throughout Washington’s institutions, where the Pacific Islands have been at the back of their minds since those epic battles were fought 80 years ago.
But during the past few months, things have changed.
The reason for this dramatic shift is plain for all to see – China. Washington is now undergoing a Pacific re-discovery that goes all the way to the top.
At the end of this month, US President Joe Biden will host Pacific leaders at the White House for the first US-Pacific Island Country Summit. This will be in the style of the ASEAN meeting held in May.
After World War II, the US was largely absent in the region. There were notable exceptions, not least the shameful Marshall Islands atomic testing program that continues to deeply affect the present.
Force for good
Now Washington is striving to be seen as a force for good in a part of the world where China has been making deep, transformative, and worrying inroads for more than 15 years.
This isn’t the first time American postwar hegemony has been challenged in the Pacific. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union was disrupting the Pacific Islands’ power balance and the US responded with a series of treaties and agreements.
The US also brokered three Compacts of Free Association (COFA) with its former United Nations Trust Territories that became the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau in the mid-1980s.
Rather than becoming independent at this time, the Northern Marianas Islands opted to join American Samoa and Guam as US territories.
Still, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, so too did American interests in the Pacific. But the compacts spurred the formation of Micronesian diaspora communities across the US.
Meanwhile, in exchange for certain rights, the COFA states gave the US exclusive control over their oceanic territories and a vital military base on Kwajalein Atoll.
In the current geopolitical context, these 20-year agreements were expiring and languishing, much to the frustration of several congressional representatives from both political sides. Fears of Chinese encroachments spurred the White House into action in March.
Urgency from Washington
Its budget lines were also designed to address both the immense needs of the region and shore up the geopolitical interests of the US and its friends and allies, not least Australia.
In August, the urgency of Washington’s outreach was on display in the Solomon Islands, the nation most precariously situated in the unfolding geopolitical contest thanks to the security deal signed in April with China.
At the beginning of the month, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and US Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy led poignant and very personal commemorations of the 80th anniversary of the commencement of the Battle of Guadalcanal in August 1942.
By the end of the month, the US hospital ship Mercy docked in Honiara, where it was welcomed by Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare. Only days before, he had prevented US coastguard cutter, Oliver Henry, from doing likewise.
Along with urgently needed medical, dental and veterinary aid, the Mercy brought music and a sense of celebration, with the US Navy band even singing Solomon Islands tunes, in a demonstration of the distinctive tone Washington now seeks to set.
Also in August, USAID released its five-year Strategic Framework. This detailed how Washington was going to rapidly restore itself in the region as it challenges “authoritarian actors.” The three development objectives were:
- Strengthening community resilience, particularly in the face of acute climate challenges.
- Bolstering Pacific economies.
- Strengthening democratic governance.
The framework cites the regional objectives laid out by the Pacific Islands Forum during the past eight years as the framework’s guide in 12 Pacific Island nations. It has a particular agenda to drastically improve the lives and status of women and girls across the region.
The USAID plan is ambitious in its hope to transform conservative Pacific societies, while at the same time offering opportunities more attractive than those of China, thereby limiting its power projection throughout the region.
It is the 12 Pacific nations where USAID seeks to expand operations that have been invited to the White House in late September.
The withholding of invitations to the remaining members of the Pacific Islands Forum – the Cook Islands, Niue, French Polynesia, and New Caledonia – has been duly noted.
Blue Pacific partners
It is a puzzling move, but one that indicates the agenda for the summit – for Biden’s administration to specifically develop its Washington programs.
The recent revelation that the five foreign ministers heading the Partners in the Blue Pacific Initiative – US, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom – will meet before the summit also suggests multilateral proposals will be tabled too.
Given how little the region has been seen and heard in Washington, the summit offers a rare opportunity for the administration to listen to what Pacific leaders have to say and reshape their approach accordingly.
Patricia A O’Brien is a Faculty Member, Asian Studies Program, at Georgetown University; a Visiting Fellow, Department of Pacific Affairs, at Australian National University; and an Adjunct Fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, at Georgetown University
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.