Biden launches $810 million diplomatic initiative in the Pacific Islands

“Pressure and economic coercion from the People’s Republic of China…risks undermining the peace, prosperity, and security of the region and, by extension, the United States,” the introduction to the Partnership Strategy said. of the Pacific. “These challenges require renewed U.S. engagement throughout the Pacific Islands region. To that end, President Biden is elevating broader and deeper engagement with the Pacific Islands as a US foreign policy priority. »

The strategy identifies key Pacific island concerns as top priorities for U.S. engagement in the region, including risks posed by the climate crisis, damage from illegal industrial fishing fleets, and economic displacement. inflicted by the pandemic. But Pacific Island leaders meeting in Washington on Thursday will want to see the United States reverse that rhetoric with action.

“The Pacific has heard it all before and they will want to see real commitments,” said John T. Hennessey-Niland, recently US Ambassador to Palau and now a professor of practice at the Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University. . “The risk would be to over-promise and under-deliver…we need to find the resources to do what is needed in this increasingly strategic part of the world.”

The Biden administration is committing $810 million to the strategy to counter such skepticism. That figure — which includes a “request for a 10-year, $600 million economic assistance agreement from Congress” — suggests the administration is seeking to avoid the ridicule it endured for the relatively paltry $150 million. that Biden distributed to the 10 ASEAN member states in May.

The spending spree doesn’t stop there. The administration will also seek $5 million from Congress “to establish a scholarship program in partnership with the University of the South Pacific and top universities in the United States.” The Strategy also includes a $22 million budget for climate change resilience and ocean and weather data collection. The largesse follows Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s announcement on Wednesday of $4.8 million in US funding for the new Resilient Blue Economies initiative to “strengthen marine livelihoods by supporting fishing, sustainable aquaculture and tourism”.

But Biden is not just throwing money at Pacific island nations. The strategy sets specific benchmarks for US engagement. They include boosting the US diplomatic presence in the region from six embassies to nine through a planned new embassy in the Solomon Islands and possible diplomatic outposts in Tonga and Kiribati.

But the administration has neither the will nor the resources to ensure that every Pacific island country gets a permanent US diplomatic presence. “Where gaps in permanent presence remain, we will seek additional facilities and creative solutions to provide the Pacific Islands with the diplomatic attention they deserve,” the document said.

These “creative solutions” may not satisfy Pacific Islanders or the resource-starved US diplomats tasked with serving them. “The fleets of many of our larger embassies are more staffed than our small Pacific [diplomatic] Pacific posts like Palau,” Hennessey-Niland said. “That must change if we take our renewed interest in this strategically important region seriously.”

Other Strategy benchmarks include support for ‘good governance capacity’, including anti-corruption, media development and human rights programmes. And the United States is taking an explicitly multilateral approach to improving the climate resilience and job and education opportunities of Pacific island countries by pledging help from allies such as France, the European Union and Korea. from South.

Helping Pacific island countries develop “climate-resilient and adaptive infrastructure” will be expensive. The administration has therefore pledged to leverage the funding capacity of the US Trade and Development Agency and the Export-Import Bank to help fund such initiatives.

The Strategy also commits to renewing the Strategic Partnership Agreements, or Compacts of Free Association, with Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands. The COFAs for Micronesia and the Marshall Islands expire in 2023, while those for Palau expire in 2024. The president’s special envoy, Ambassador Joseph Yun, told POLITICO last week that the State Department is on the right track to renew these COFAs by the end of 2022 after six months of intensive negotiations.

These agreements will effectively protect these three countries from Beijing’s efforts to replace the United States as the dominant superpower in the region and will have a positive demonstrative effect for neighboring countries.

“If we can conclude these [COFAs] quickly and fund them would probably be the best possible way to demonstrate US resolve,” Hennessey-Niland said. “I know this only covers three countries, but the rest of the region would hear loud and clear that the United States is ready to do its part and step in in a major way to renew these agreements.”

Sealing those COFA deals probably won’t come cheap. Ambassadors based in Washington, DC to Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands sent a letter to Kurt Campbell, the Indo-Pacific coordinator of the United States National Security Council, warning on Monday that “the economic aid offered by the United States is insufficient”. The ambassadors warned that unless the Biden administration improves financial incentives for COFAs, “the governments we represent cannot count on a successful [COFA negotiation] results.”

But the strategy – backed by even the best intentions in deep pockets – will not quickly resolve the decline of American influence in the region.

“The United States government has been somewhat apathetic towards the Pacific Islands region [and] it has damaged reputations across the region,” said Michael Walsh, chairman of the Asia-Pacific Security Affairs Subcommittee of Biden’s Defense Task Force during the 2020 presidential campaign.

“The United States government must not only make concrete commitments on issues important to Pacific island countries, but it must also follow through on those commitments. It will take time — there is no other remedy.


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