Biden’s challenge at the summit will be overcoming a lack of U.S. credibility underscored by Beijing’s controversial security pact with skepticism from the Solomon Islands and island nations about U.S. commitment to deal with the existential threat they face due to climate change..
“Chinese activities in the Pacific earlier this year, including the signing of the China-Solomon Islands security agreement and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s 10-day eight-country tour of the Pacific to forge a consensus on Beijing’s Common Vision Statement, have served as a wake-up call for the United States as it competes in this geostrategically sensitive and important region,” said Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst at RAND Corporation. “The summit will give Washington the opportunity not only to deepen its ties with the Pacific island nations as a group, which they strongly prefer, but also to symbolically push back the idea that the United States sort of lose their influence there to China.”
The Solomon Islands-China security deal – sealed over strong objections from the US, Australia, Japan and New Zealand – served as a rebuke to US diplomatic disengagement with Oceania in the decades, which has created an opportunity for China to strengthen its influence in the region. And it has spurred a wave of US diplomatic contacts with the Solomons and other Pacific island nations to reverse perceptions that the US has abandoned the region.
Daniel Kristenbrink, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and Kurt Campbell, Indo-Pacific Coordinator of the National Security Council, led the charge with an April tour through the Solomon Islands, Fiji and Papua New Guinea “to advance a free, open, and resilient Indo-Pacific,” the State Department said in a statement.
The visit garnered U.S. commitments, including the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in the Solomon Islands and agreements to “advance initiatives on climate, health, and people-to-people connections,” the minister said at the time. state department. In June, the United States, in partnership with Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the United Kingdom, launched the Partners in the Blue Pacific initiative to “forge closer ties with Pacific governments “, says a joint statement.
A month later, Vice President Kamala Harris hosted a Pacific Forum meeting where she announced that the United States would open embassies in Kiribati and Tonga and restore Peace Corps deployments in the region. region. In August, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman convened a meeting of representatives of Pacific island nations in Wellington, New Zealand, where she pledged U.S. assistance to “combat climate change, combat illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing and support inclusive economic development”. .”
But skepticism abounds about the effectiveness of the administration’s efforts to reassert US dominance in the region.
“Overview, the Biden administration’s random engagement strategy has resulted in very few meaningful deliverables, even as the White House continues to release press backgrounders claiming otherwise,” said Craig Singleton. , senior researcher on China at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
A key pending deliverable is extending expiring treaties with Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands to protect those countries from Chinese diplomatic incursions. The treaties, called Compacts of Free Association, obligate the United States to provide the three countries with financial assistance and visa-free migration rights and give the United States the right to deny foreigners access to waters, airspace and ground of these countries. The COFAs for Micronesia and the Marshall Islands expire in 2023, while those for Palau expire in 2024.
Micronesia President David Panuelo urged the administration in February to speed up those negotiations, prompting Kritenbrink to declare them “an absolute priority”. Biden in March appointed Joseph Yun as the State Department’s special presidential envoy for the pact negotiations. Yun visited the Marshall Islands in June as part of ongoing efforts to expand treaties, but there is no specific timeline for when Yun might strike COFA expansion deals.
This flurry of diplomatic activity reflects US perceptions of the tangible threat posed by China’s diplomatic incursions into a region whose sea lanes are a vital strategic corridor linking Australia to its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific.
“The United States needs to worry about each of these countries and the direction in which they will drift,” said Howard Stoffer, associate professor of national security at the University of New Haven. “The Chinese are going to offer them money, so we need to be able to offer them other things like strategic military protection in case of an attack and assure them that we are fulfilling our obligations under the Paris agreement. [climate] Agreement because many of these countries will be under water [due to rising sea levels].”
The United States’ record of fighting climate change has hampered its diplomatic overtures in the Pacific islands. The Trump administration has adopted a policy of climate change denial and withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord in 2020. But China has made climate change a key part of its regional outreach.
Chinese President Xi Jinping announced in 2015 the establishment of a $3.1 billion China South-South Climate Cooperation Fund to help developing countries mitigate the effects of climate change. And in April, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng launched a China-Pacific Island Countries Cooperation Center for Climate Action in Liaocheng City, Shandong. The center will strengthen the “capacity of Pacific island nations to deal with climate change”, Xie said in a speech.
Washington sought to offset China’s regional climate diplomacy by proposing in July to triple funding for ocean resilience in the region to $60 million a year over the next decade. But this is a pittance compared to Chinese largesse. And with Congressional approval for this uncertain spending, it will only deepen skepticism among Pacific island nations about the United States’ commitment to meaningfully addressing the region’s climate concerns.
“It’s not like the United States is starting from scratch in its relationship with many Pacific island states on climate, but I feel like politico-military issues are at the top of the list. [U.S. political] priority list,” said Scott M. Moore, Director of Chinese Programs and Strategic Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania.