Dissension among participants of the first-ever U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit opening Wednesday in Washington, D.C., is complicating the Biden administration’s efforts to forge stronger ties with the region.
Two of the summit’s participants — the Marshall Islands and Solomon Islands — are publicly resisting Biden administration efforts to deepen U.S. influence in the region.
The Marshall Islands on Sept. 23 suspended talks with the U.S. on renewing its strategic partnership, or Compact of Free Association Agreement, to protest the perceived U.S. failure to address the economic, environmental and health legacy of U.S. nuclear weapons testing around the atolls from 1946 to 1958.
And the Solomon Islands, which signed a controversial security pact with China earlier this year, is refusing to sign an 11-point summit declaration “designed to provide a framework for intensified U.S. engagement in the Pacific,” the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported Tuesday. “The Solomons have been actively engaged in all the efforts that we’ve been involved with,” a senior administration official said Tuesday, without addressing the Australian report.
That public pushback marks a humbling kick-off for the two-day summit and underscores the challenges that the Biden administration faces in redeeming U.S. credibility in a region where China is filling the void created by decades of U.S. disengagement. But the administration is adamant that the two-day summit will deliver tangible benefits for Pacific Island countries that will underscore U.S. resolve to be their superpower partner of choice.
“This summit is quite a while in the making and we believe it will be a substantial investment,” the senior administration official said. “We will talk specifically about programs and agencies and specific budget numbers.”
Detailed deliverables powered by generous U.S. funding is essential if the administration wants to counter China’s growing influence in the region. For many Pacific Islanders, the most visible symbols of U.S. engagement are the remains of former World War II battlefields such as Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. That influence vacuum has lubricated China’s diplomatic inroads over the past two decades in the absence of a competitive U.S. alternative.
The administration is coordinating its summit outreach with its Partners in the Blue Pacific initiative allies Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom “to add more resources, more capacity, more diplomatic engagement as a whole,” said the official. The summit will also mark the launch of the U.S. government’s first-ever Pacific Strategy, a regional-specific compliment to the administration’s China-containing Indo-Pacific Strategy launched in September 2021.
“This [strategy] is specifically aimed at the concerns and the objectives in the Pacific as a whole … [and] about how to organize the disparate elements of the U.S. government toward tackling issues like climate change, training, issues associated with [over]fishing, investments in technology,” the official said.
Initiatives to address the existential threat that the climate crisis poses to Pacific Island countries will get their leaders’ attention. China has helped power its diplomatic inroads with a bespoke climate diplomacy aimed to address concerns about rising sea levels. China’s special envoy on climate change, Xie Zhenhua, earlier this month convened a “climate change dialogue and exchange meeting” in Beijing with diplomatic representatives from Vanuatu, Samoa, Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Micronesia, Fiji and Tonga, the Chinese Foreign Ministry reported.
The administration will deploy Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry on Wednesday to tout the administration’s determination to improve Pacific Island countries’ links to the U.S.
“We’ll have the following day a major event at the Chamber of Commerce when the leaders will have an opportunity to engage with a broad array of business groups ranging from tourism [and] travel to energy to technology, to essentially talk about how U.S. business groups can be more actively engaged,” said the official.
But the Marshall Islands’ move to freeze talks on COFA renewal is a kick in the teeth to the administration just days after Special Presidential Envoy Ambassador Joseph Yun told POLITICO that the State Department was on track to renew COFAs with Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands by end-2022 after six months of intensive negotiations. And it raises questions about the Biden administration’s strategy to use those COFAs to effectively firewall those three countries from Beijing’s efforts to displace the U.S. as the region’s dominant superpower.
And the resistance of Solomon Islands to signing on to the summit declaration will heighten administration concerns about the influence of the country’s security pact with Beijing on its relations with the U.S.
Solomon Islands denied port access to a U.S. Coast Guard cutter last month due to unspecified “bureaucratic reasons” and subsequently imposed a temporary moratorium on all foreign naval ships.
The administration is confident that the summit will demonstrate that the U.S. can deliver meaningful, long-term engagement with Pacific Island countries.
“Every step along the way we’ve briefed our partners on Capitol Hill extensively on new assistance efforts, on new commitments and we have found uniform bipartisan support,” the official said. “And so, in a deeply divided, often adversarial town, we have found generally the Indo Pacific is one area where Democrats and Republicans can make common cause.”