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A Summit Can’t Fix America’s Pacific Islands Problems

They don’t just want a diplomatic deal; they want a reckoning with a history of abuse.

By , an author and analyst in the areas of geopolitics, foreign policy, security, human rights.
Micronesia President David Panuelo, Fiji Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, U.S. President Joe Biden, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape find their places along with other leaders from the Pacific Islands region before taking a photograph on the North Portico of the White House September 29, 2022 in Washington.
Micronesia President David Panuelo, Fiji Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, U.S. President Joe Biden, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape find their places along with other leaders from the Pacific Islands region before taking a photograph on the North Portico of the White House September 29, 2022 in Washington.
Micronesia President David Panuelo, Fiji Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, U.S. President Joe Biden, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape find their places along with other leaders from the Pacific Islands region before taking a photograph on the North Portico of the White House September 29, 2022 in Washington. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

At the White House on Thursday, U.S. President Joe Biden wined and dined the leaders of 14 Pacific Island countries as part of an unprecedented summit with the region. The meeting concluded with a joint 11-point declaration signed by all the participants vowing closer cooperation with the United States in the future. The declaration states that “the Pacific Islands note the United States’ commitment to enhance and deepen its security cooperation in the region” in “an increasingly complex geopolitical environment”—an oblique reference to China’s growing influence in the region.

It was a diplomatic success for the United States—but on narrower terms than it might seem. Washington still faces big challenges in the region and not only in the form of competition from China.

Before the start of the summit, the Solomon Islands refused to sign the declaration and tried to sway the rest of the Pacific Islands’ leaders to reject it too. It’s tempting to attribute this resistance solely to Chinese influence given the security deal that the Solomon Islands signed this year with Beijing. But it’s also reflective of regional interests and priorities that the United States tends to overlook—and which no amount of wining and dining at the White House will diminish.

At the White House on Thursday, U.S. President Joe Biden wined and dined the leaders of 14 Pacific Island countries as part of an unprecedented summit with the region. The meeting concluded with a joint 11-point declaration signed by all the participants vowing closer cooperation with the United States in the future. The declaration states that “the Pacific Islands note the United States’ commitment to enhance and deepen its security cooperation in the region” in “an increasingly complex geopolitical environment”—an oblique reference to China’s growing influence in the region.

It was a diplomatic success for the United States—but on narrower terms than it might seem. Washington still faces big challenges in the region and not only in the form of competition from China.

Before the start of the summit, the Solomon Islands refused to sign the declaration and tried to sway the rest of the Pacific Islands’ leaders to reject it too. It’s tempting to attribute this resistance solely to Chinese influence given the security deal that the Solomon Islands signed this year with Beijing. But it’s also reflective of regional interests and priorities that the United States tends to overlook—and which no amount of wining and dining at the White House will diminish.

The United States has a long record of abuses in the Pacific Islands that continues to shape the region’s politics. During the 20th century, the United States organized scores of poorly regulated tests of nuclear weapons and dumped nuclear waste in the Pacific Ocean dozens of times. U.S. military interests were repeatedly placed above the interests of local residents. A United Nations special rapporteur in 2012 documented how the United States did permanent damage to the Marshall Islands through nuclear tests carried out over more than a decade. A U.N. fact-finding mission found that radiation from the 67 nuclear tests conducted by the United States in the islands from 1946 to 1958 continues to affect the health of the Marshallese and have permanently contaminated their land. Moreover, many people continue to experience indefinite displacement. Some have suggested that nuclear pollution on the Marshall Islands is considerably worse than in Chernobyl, Ukraine, and Fukushima, Japan.

These are systematic human rights violations—not isolated incidents—that countries in the region believe require acknowledgment and reparations; this is a criminal past that can’t simply be solved with a fancy dinner in Washington, however much the United States might hope that’s the case.

The United States’ relationship with the Marshall Islands is a case in point. This bilateral relationship, which includes a security partnership, is governed by a Compact of Free Association (COFA), which expires in 2023 and is due to be renegotiated by the end of the year. The Marshall Islands has insisted that reparations for the legacy of U.S. nuclear testing in the region must be a part of these negotiations. But Washington never even offered full acknowledgment of its misdeeds in the Marshall Islands. As a result, the Marshall Islands has suspended talks to renew the security partnership. The Biden administration would clearly like to renegotiate the COFA as soon as possible, but it has done little to clear the impasse.

This week’s summit did nothing to change this regrettable record. The closest the declaration came was in Point 10, which referenced “the legacies of conflict and the promotion of nuclear nonproliferation.” “World War II ended nearly 80 years ago, but its scars remain in the Pacific. We, too, acknowledge the nuclear legacy of the Cold War,” the declaration reads. “The United States remains committed to addressing the Republic of the Marshall Islands’ ongoing environmental, public health concerns, and other welfare concerns.” This language was carefully crafted to avoid any acknowledgment of U.S. responsibility for the Marshall Islands’ “concerns.”

The summit’s declaration further stated in Point 10 that “The United States is committed to the safe removal and disposal of unexploded ordnance, and hereby acknowledges the concerns of Pacific Island States regarding other remnants of World War II.” But the declaration does not mention financial reparations for this legacy of military misdeeds. Instead, a “fact sheet” published in conjunction with the summit mentions the Pacific Islands’ problems with governance, democratic standards, and human rights. For many residents of the Pacific Islands, the hypocrisy of not even mentioning U.S. human rights problems is glaring. This is part of the reason that China, which has no record of nuclear crimes toward Pacific Island nations, has been treated as a potential alternative when it comes to foreign-policy partnerships, including in its security pact with the Solomon Islands.

Furthermore, the declaration in Point 10 reads, “We are united in our support for the nuclear nonproliferation regime, including the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; as well as the important role of the International Atomic Energy Agency.” No mention was made of the ways this was contradicted in spirit, if not in letter, by the plans underway in the United States, Great Britain, and Australia to increase the number of nuclear submarines in the Pacific Ocean under their so-called AUKUS agreement, which is aimed at countering China.

The United States also needs a reality check when it comes to the scale of the aid packages and financial assistance it is prepared to offer the region. At the summit, the Biden administration announced some $810 million in aid. Ahead of the summit, three Pacific Island countries—in a letter sent to Kurt Campbell, U.S. National Security Council coordinator for the Indo-Pacific—said they were concerned this level of “economic assistance is insufficient.” The islands need serious climate change mitigation, as some of them will disappear underwater with the advance of climate change.

What the negotiation process shows is that the Pacific Islands are well aware of their own renewed geostrategic significance and can’t be easily impressed by symbolic offers from the United States. The islands’ leaders have now played their cards in Washington, but that will not be the end to the negotiations; it will merely be the first step to playing their potential partners against one another. The next move is to see what China’s response to the declaration will be.

Iveta Cherneva is an author and analyst in the areas of geopolitics, foreign policy, security, human rights.

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