U.S. Raises the Ante in Pacific Islands After Chinese Swoop

But the Pacific Islands are loath to be pawns in a geopolitical game.

By , , and
Kiribati’s seat sits empty at the Pacific Islands Forum.
Kiribati’s seat sits empty at the Pacific Islands Forum.
Kiribati’s seat sits empty as Pacific Island leaders listen to the opening remarks of the Pacific Islands Forum in Suva, Fiji, on July 12. WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has unveiled plans to scale up its diplomatic footprint and foreign aid investments in the Pacific Ocean in a bid to counter China’s growing clout and military designs as well as reverse course on decades of waning U.S. influence and high-level interest in the region. 

The United States plans to open two new embassies in the Pacific Islands—in Tonga and Kiribati—and appoint a first-ever U.S. envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris announced during a virtual address to the 18-nation forum this week. The Biden administration is also submitting requests to Congress to triple funding for fisheries assistance for the region to the tune of $60 million, and it is mapping plans to open a U.S. Agency for International Development Pacific Island regional office to help the region adapt to the effects of climate change. 

The slew of announcements comes as the United States’ top global rival, China, seeks to make inroads in the Pacific Islands and vies for more geopolitical influence in the region as part of a diplomatic campaign that has alarmed Washington and its allies. In April, the Solomon Islands signed a bilateral security cooperation agreement with China that seemed to give it a possible military foothold on the island chain, fueling concern in the United States and Australia as well as sending top U.S. officials scrambling to try and outmaneuver the Chinese government and court the Solomon Islands to scuttle the agreement. 

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has unveiled plans to scale up its diplomatic footprint and foreign aid investments in the Pacific Ocean in a bid to counter China’s growing clout and military designs as well as reverse course on decades of waning U.S. influence and high-level interest in the region. 

The United States plans to open two new embassies in the Pacific Islands—in Tonga and Kiribati—and appoint a first-ever U.S. envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris announced during a virtual address to the 18-nation forum this week. The Biden administration is also submitting requests to Congress to triple funding for fisheries assistance for the region to the tune of $60 million, and it is mapping plans to open a U.S. Agency for International Development Pacific Island regional office to help the region adapt to the effects of climate change. 

The slew of announcements comes as the United States’ top global rival, China, seeks to make inroads in the Pacific Islands and vies for more geopolitical influence in the region as part of a diplomatic campaign that has alarmed Washington and its allies. In April, the Solomon Islands signed a bilateral security cooperation agreement with China that seemed to give it a possible military foothold on the island chain, fueling concern in the United States and Australia as well as sending top U.S. officials scrambling to try and outmaneuver the Chinese government and court the Solomon Islands to scuttle the agreement. 

“The security agreement that was signed between China and Solomon Islands really was a step further down the path of strategic competition,” Richard Marles, Australia’s deputy prime minister and defense minister, told reporters in Washington on Thursday. “That very much changes the national security framework for Australia.” Marles said the United States and Australia were angling to be the “natural partner of choice” for the Pacific Islands, but they needed to pay sufficient attention to the region to earn their trust.

The consensus among officials and experts in the region is that new actions from Washington is too late but not too little. 

In her remarks, Harris conceded that the Pacific region had gotten short shrift in U.S. foreign policy in recent decades. “We recognize that in recent years, the Pacific Islands may not have received the diplomatic attention and support that you deserve. So today, I am here to tell you directly: We are going to change that,” she said. 

“It’s very clear now that the United States has not had a Pacific strategy and had not paid enough attention to this region going back decades,” said Charles Edel, a former U.S. State Department official and expert on the region at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “There’s been a very fast scramble to rectify that, both in the short term but also to set us on the path to have a more sustainable and strategic approach.”

The United States has long had a deal with the so-called Freely Associated States in the Pacific Islands—the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau—that both governs the U.S. diplomatic relationship with those countries and allows Washington to funnel in aid, just over $200 million a year through the State and Interior Departments. The Defense Department also regularly conducts missile tests on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. But the island nations have criticized the Biden administration for failing to give sufficient attention to the talks and to trust funds that help manage that assistance: Negotiations to re-up the pacts, which are set to expire next year for the Marshall Islands and Micronesia as well as in 2024 for Palau, have run aground as arguments over how to distribute the funds among the three states have heated up.

Despite ongoing squabbling, leaders at the forum praised the sudden surge in high-level U.S. interest, and it represented something of a diplomatic victory for Washington over Beijing that Harris was allowed to speak at the forum, even virtually. Other major powers that partner with the PIF—including France, Britain, and, most notably, China—weren’t invited to the summit this year to make space for genuine regional interests. 

“I think it is clear to see that the U.S. is certainly looking a lot more like the Pacific partner we have traditionally held it to be,” Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said at the forum. 

The leader of the Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogavare, also said in an interview on the sidelines of the forum that he would never allow a Chinese military base in his country and referred to Australia as his country’s “security partner of choice” in response to Western outcry regarding his security pact with China. 

But it doesn’t mean the United States and its allies can declare victory, particularly as China continues to step up its engagement with the region. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi toured the Pacific in late May following China’s security deal with the Solomon Islands, aiming to bring more island nations closer to Beijing through a regional pact. But hopes of forging a deeper relationship in the Pacific proved unfruitful as leaders made it clear that China’s proposed multilateral deal would be a no-go.

“I think that’s a huge propaganda defeat for China, the way it was treated by the islanders themselves,” said Alexander Gray, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and a former director for Oceania and Indo-Pacific security at the U.S. National Security Council during the Trump administration. But if China manages to put a base in the Pacific Islands that’s beneficial for the host country, he said, “that’s going to have a ripple effect with other countries that are considering it.”

Further complicating matters for Washington, there’s a sense in the region that it only gets high-level attention when there’s a crisis or when Beijing offers it high-level attention first. “The U.S. has a history of putting relationships with the Freely Associated States on a back burner and not paying attention until a crisis arises. That is not the best way to maintain friendships,” said Robert Schwalbach, who is the chief of staff to Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, a nonvoting member of U.S. Congress for the Northern Mariana Islands.

The Freely Associated States (FAS) are sovereign states but receive U.S. economic assistance and grant the United States basing rights. In March, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken appointed Joseph Yun, a senior career diplomat and seasoned negotiator, to negotiate changes to the agreement governing the relationship between the FAS and the United States. And both members of Congress and island nations have been upset with the speed at which the negotiations are moving.

“There’s an obvious tension between what the Pacific Island leaders want, as far as more attention from the U.S., and why the U.S. is giving this, which is China-focused,” said Gregory Poling, director of the Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at CSIS. “The U.S. government, despite its size, still has finite resources. So anytime it decides to focus on a specific region, there’s a good chance it’s tied to the ‘China challenge.’”

Governments in the Pacific also bristle at the idea of being caught up as pawns in the Chinese-U.S. competition, and they fear geopolitics could cloud over more pressing concerns for the island nations—most importantly, climate change. Both the United States and China were shut out of physically attending the four-day gathering in Fiji as in-person attendance was only open to member nations, seeming to confirm Pacific leaders’ desire to avoid any pressure by outsiders during their summit.

“The region does not want to be viewed as part of a military game between China and the U.S.,” said Derek Grossman, a researcher on Indo-Pacific security issues at the Rand Corporation.

Still, there could be a silver lining for the smaller island nations jockeying for increased investment and economic aid from major powers. “When you’re being courted by both China and the U.S. and its allies, that’s good,” Poling said. “That increases your leverage. You’re going to take advantage of that. You live in a world of great-power competition. Make the most of it.”

Although the United States and its allies have seemed to lend a closer ear to island nations’ concerns as the region slides further into Beijing’s orbit, experts say it’s clear putting together a Pacific strategy has been fast tracked.

“We still are not there yet in terms of treating it as a sufficiently high priority on our end,” Gray said. “The islands are of the same geographic strategic importance that they had in the 19th century. If you’re trying to project power from the Western Hemisphere to East Asia, you’re going to have to go through the Central and North Pacific and the islands that sit astride those sea lanes.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Mary Yang is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @MaryRanYang

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A propaganda poster from the 1960s shows Chinese leader Mao Zedong.
A propaganda poster from the 1960s shows Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

Xi’s Great Leap Backward

Beijing is running out of recipes for its looming jobs crisis—and reviving Mao-era policies.

A textile worker at the Maxport factory in Hanoi on Sept. 21, 2021.
A textile worker at the Maxport factory in Hanoi on Sept. 21, 2021.

Companies Are Fleeing China for Friendlier Shores

“Friendshoring” is the new trend as geopolitics bites.

German children stand atop building rubble in Berlin in 1948.
German children stand atop building rubble in Berlin in 1948.

Why Superpower Crises Are a Good Thing

A new era of tensions will focus minds and break logjams, as Cold War history shows.

Vacationers sit on a beach in Greece.
Vacationers sit on a beach in Greece.

The Mediterranean as We Know It Is Vanishing

From Saint-Tropez to Amalfi, the region’s most attractive tourist destinations are also its most vulnerable.