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America’s Second Pivot to the Pacific Region

25 May 2023
By Dr Anne-Marie Schleich
President Joe Biden attends the Pacific Island Country Summit, Thursday, September 29, 2022, at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C. Source: Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz/

The US is trying to return to the Pacific in full force, but it has to be mindful of the real needs of the region. Joining onto climate platforms that support the mitigation of Pacific Island challenges will go a long way to building real and sustainable support for US goals. 

When the Obama Administration proclaimed a “Pivot to Asia” in 2011, hopes were raised by this policy declaration of increased engagement across the Asia-Pacific. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated that pledge at the 2012 Pacific Island Forum (PIF) summit. However, in the end it fell short of assuring American interests in the region. A decade later, we see renewed American efforts to reengage in the Indo Pacific, also with Pacific island countries.

During the intervening years, China increased its political, economic, and aid presence in the Pacific region. Chinese President Xi Jinping made a state visit to Papua New Guinea (PNG) in 2018. As early as 2014, he had visited three other Pacific countries. And Chinese foreign ministers were present at PIF meetings and made many bilateral visits. China has become the biggest trading partner of most of the Pacific countries.

It was the security pact between China and the Solomon Islands in May 2022 that pushed the US as well as Australia and New Zealand, its allies in the region, to increase their engagement in the Pacific. Their concerns about the strategic importance of the region and possible geopolitical ramifications of stronger Chinese engagement in the Pacific reflected the wider geopolitical competition between China and the US. The US had relied mostly on Australia and New Zealand to mind the region and had neglected the Pacific – apart from its historic relations with the three Pacific Compact countries.

The US published its Indo-Pacific Strategy in 2022 to mitigate the growing Chinese influence in the region. Some of its instruments were overlapping minilateral regional alliances, such as AUKUS – the trilateral security pact between the US, UK, and Australia – and the quadrilateral “Quad” group consisting of Japan, India, the US, and Australia. Others were newly created, for example the “Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity” (IPEF). Interestingly, the Quad leaders had agreed during their recent Hiroshima summit to increase cooperation with  Pacific island countries.

President Joe Biden’s visit to Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea (PNG), would have been the first by any American president to a Pacific Island country. It is too early to say whether the recent abrupt cancellation of the trip will cause lasting damage to America’s plans to regain a political presence in the region and whether it will play into China’s hands. As a consolation, President Biden invited all Pacific island leaders to a second summit in Washington in September 2023 and sent Secretary of State Antony Blinken to stand in for him to meet the gathered Pacific heads of government. Blinken also signed bilateral defence cooperation as well as maritime surveillance agreements with PNG. He underlined that these “will enhance the PNG’s Defence Force’s capability to deliver humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.” The US Coast Guard will assist PNG to control illegal fishing in its 2.4 million square kilometer Exclusive Economic Zone. Additionally, a $US45 million support package for PNG was announced.

Prior to that, the US had sent a number of high-ranking political and military visitors to the Pacific. Among them was the first visit of a US Secretary of State in 40 years and that of US Vice President Kamala Harris, who attended the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) summit in July last year. It was followed by President Biden hosting twelve PIF heads of government at a US-Pacific summit at the White House last year. The US then announced a Pacific aid program of $US 800 million spread over 10 years, and a Pacific Partnership Strategy.

To compete with Chinese diplomatic inroads, the US increased its diplomatic presence in four Pacific countries. It reopened its embassy in the Solomon Islands after 30 years, opened a new embassy in Tonga, and has planned for embassies in Kiribati and Vanuatu. It was Kiribati and the Solomon Islands which in 2019 switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing. President Biden also appointed a special envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum.

Interestingly, the historically close American allies, Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Marshall Islands, which have been in a Compact of Free Association with the US since 1986, drove a hard bargain for the renewal of economic assistance in their Compact package using the geopolitical competition as a bargaining chip. The US finally had to agree to an unprecedented economic package of more than $US7 billion over 20 years, hoping that this will convince them to stay within the US sphere of influence. The landmark US-Palau Assistance 2023 agreement was just signed in Port Moresby during the Blinken visit.

In tandem with the US, the Australian Labor government intensified its political relations with the Pacific; increased aid (especially to PNG); concluded security and investment agreements; and increased its infrastructure financing. Interestingly, China has reduced its aid to the Pacific since 2018, focusing mainly on Kiribati and the Solomon Islands.

This second US pivot to the Pacific Island countries looks more viable and credible than the last attempt, but there are still some pitfalls. It is only the fifth largest donor after Australia, New Zealand, the Asian Development Bank, Japan, China, and the EU with about 80 percent of its aid mainly directed to the Compact countries. Other players have been active in the region for a long time. India wants to intensify its cooperation after the recent visit of Prime Minister Narendra Mody to Port Moresby for the “India Pacific Islands Cooperation” summit. America’s trade with the region remains low (again except with the Compact states).

Will we see a more divided Pacific? The often-repeated mantra in the PIF is that Pacific countries do not want to choose between the two major superpowers for fear of being drawn into a regional conflict. But it needs to be seen whether the new US-PNG defence cooperation agreement was a clever strategic manoeuvre by the US to counteract the China-Solomon Islands security pact. It could also lead to more political divisions among the major Pacific Island countries themselves. On top of this, memories of US, UK, and French nuclear tests in the Pacific (some until the 1990s) explain some recent negative reactions in the Pacific to the AUKUS submarine project and fears of a militarisation in the region. There is a growing concern that the South Pacific could become the thoroughfare for nuclear-propelled US (and in future also Australian) submarines. Without sincere consultations by the AUKUS members, this could create divisions between Pacific Island and the AUKUS member countries, Australia and US.

But most important for the Pacific countries are their existential concerns about the ever-increasing climate crisis. All of them have in past years actively fought for more decisive international action against climate change. Australia and the US need to check their respective domestic and international climate policies in order to stay credible with Pacific Island countries. It was therefore politically unwise for the US not to support Vanuatu in the recent UN General Assembly vote in the UN resolution sponsored by 130 countries, which will seek the opinion of the International Court of Justice on the obligation of countries to address climate change.

In the end, this second pivot to the Pacific will be judged by America’s willingness to address the region’s major concerns, such as climate crisis and illegal fishing, support for PIF’s 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific, and contribute towards sustainable prosperity and peace in the region.

This article contains excerpts of Dr Schleich’s essay published by RSIS on 19.5.2023.

Dr Anne-Marie Schleich is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore. She is a retired German diplomat whose last post was German Ambassador to New Zealand and seven Pacific Island countries.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.