I once had a professor who shared a story about working on Capitol Hill for a prominent U.S. senator who stressed the importance of naming legislation with an acronym, something catchy and memorable.
I mention this because the BLUE Pacific Act is winding its way through Congress, with BLUE standing for “Boosting Long-Term U.S. Engagement,” and is one of many recent steps in Washington to pay more attention to the Pacific, especially the Pacific Islands.
BLUE Pacific is definitely more memorable than H.R. 7797, the legislation’s official title.
Hawaii Congressman Ed Case introduced the bill in July; since then, it’s been referred to various committees. As congressional watchers know, however, introducing a bill is the easy part. Many languish in committee, and I have remarked on many an occasion, mostly to myself, that the U.S. House of Representatives is where political aspirations go to die – just ask Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, all three of whom likely owe their presidencies to losing congressional races early in their careers.
I try my best not to predict the future. I have a habit of getting proven wrong. But all indicators are that this bill will, in some form, go somewhere. Washington is paying renewed attention to the Pacific.
The proposal itself is straightforward: establishing or expanding diplomatic and aid programs throughout the Pacific Islands, including maritime and transnational law enforcement, economic development initiatives such as expansion and diversification of trade (I’m searching for a supplier of Pohnpei peppers, by the way), and programs related to public health, education, climate change and greater freedom of speech. As with most legislation, it directs specific government officials – the secretary of Homeland Security, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development or USAID, U.S. trade representative, secretaries of Defense and State – to implement these programs, and of course to write regulations.
I think we all know why the U.S. has a renewed interest in long-term engagement in the Pacific: China.
At the same time, House Republicans on the Committee on Foreign Affairs issued their China Task Force Report, which characterized China as a “generational threat,” and that U.S. policy toward China, which has largely been consistent between administrations since President Nixon opened diplomatic relations with Chairman Mao, as a failure. Their reasons are the typical list: human rights violations, unfair trade practices, predatory loan terms that undermine national sovereignty, all while China has continued to grow.
The word “communist” is used 70 times as it describes, among other things, the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s quest to build roads and ports to expand access to resources and markets, ostensibly to also give other nations access to global markets, all financed by loans from China, of course.
“Free peoples and free societies will always be the enemy,” of the Chinese Communist Party, per the House GOP.
Almost a decade ago then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton wrote in Foreign Policy of “America’s Pacific Century,” where she expounded how the futures and interests of the U.S. and Asia-Pacific are intertwined, and proposed strengthening bilateral security alliances, deepening working relationships with emerging powers (including China), engaging with regional multilateral institutions, expanding trade and investment, forging a broad-based military presence, and advancing democracy and human rights. This is beginning to sound familiar, China engagement notwithstanding.
In October, USAID announced the “2020 Pledge” to increase its activities in the 12-nation Pacific Island Region. Centering around three pillars — I guess “pillar” is the new go-to term — the Pledge offers $200 million in assistance, $130 million of which is for Covid-19 response. The pillars include economic development, governance and security initiatives for the Indo-Pacific. The specific goals include the creation and implementation of innovative economic solutions in the islands, fisheries development, natural resources management, disaster resilience, water and power resilience for the Freely Associated States, cultural management resources for Nan Madol, anti-drug and anti-human trafficking support, election support, support for independent news (in Mandarin, no less), and various maritime law enforcement assistance.
Many of the Compacts of Free Association, the hallmark of U.S. foreign policy in the Pacific Islands, jumbled hodgepodge of diplomacy though they may be, are up for renewal in various form, and the phenomenon known as China lurks over the horizon, impacting everything from infrastructure, U.S. national security, the world economy, and random inserts like whether the FSM will splinter to Chuukese independence in a display of one-upmanship as statecraft.
During the flag raising for the 2017 groundbreaking of the Chuuk State Capitol complex, Chuuk’s flag (the FSM and its flag were not invited) got caught in a railing while being raised in tandem with the standard of the People’s Republic. The honor guard promptly removed the Chuuk flag, leaving the flag of China to proudly flap, unaccompanied, in the wind. I have pictures on a broken phone.
The specter of an air force base housing the People’s Liberation Army one and a half jet hours from Guam must be causing sleepless nights for someone at the Pentagon.
China’s retort: is it bad for poor countries to have ports and roads?
“At the end of the day, there is no handbook for the evolving U.S.-China relationship,” wrote Secretary Clinton.
Will the U.S. succeed in defining the Pacific sphere? Is it too little, too late? Is the region ripe for a competing vision? Can either the U.S. or China actually afford its ambitions?
I try not to predict the future.
Gabriel McCoard is an attorney, who previously worked in Palau and Chuuk State. He is currently weathering the pandemic stateside. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.