By Michael Igoe
Two U.S. lawmakers introduced legislation last week that aims to shift more U.S. foreign aid funding to the Indo-Pacific region in response to what one described as “China’s bid for hegemony” in the region.
The Indo-Pacific Engagement Act is co-sponsored by Rep. Ami Bera, a Democrat from California, and Rep. Steve Chabot, a Republican from Ohio. It would require the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development to report to Congress on the resources and activities that are required to achieve U.S. policy objectives in the region and to provide “a detailed plan to expand U.S. diplomatic engagement and foreign assistance presence in the Pacific Island nations within the next five years.”
The legislation reflects growing concern that America’s current development efforts are losing in a battle for influence in a region that is home to nearly 60% of the world’s population but accounts for only 11 percent of U.S. President Joe Biden’s fiscal year 2023 budget request for U.S. foreign assistance.
Despite previous and current Administrations recognizing the importance of the Indo-Pacific in U.S. national security, for decades we have routinely underinvested in both diplomatic and aid assistance, setting the stage for China to expand its influence and attempt to define the rules in the region,” Bera said in a statement.
“The People’s Republic of China’s bid for hegemony in the Indo-Pacific is today’s problem; not a problem for five or ten years down the road. That is why it is deeply frustrating that year after year administrations of both parties produce a budget that places the IndoPacific near the bottom of our national priorities,” said Chabot.
The alarm bells and calls for change have grown sharper in recent weeks — particularly in the wake of a security pact signed by China and the Solomon Islands in mid-April, which the U.S. and its allies fear could allow Chinese warships to dock at the strategically important archipelago.
The deal is part of a larger effort by China to court small Pacific island states that together have jurisdiction over a vast, resource-rich stretch of ocean that’s home to critical shipping lanes.
In recent years, Beijing has flooded the chain of islands with infrastructure and development funding, leading to charges that the U.S. is now playing catch-up.
“We are in a generational economic contest with China that couldn’t have possibly higher stakes,” Kaush Arha, a senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub and in the Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue University, told Devex.
Specifically, those stakes are whether global economic rules are set by authoritarian governments or liberal democracies, said Arha, who served as USAID’s senior adviser on strategic engagement and coordinated the agency’s China-related policies during the administration of former President Donald Trump.
“There’s a huge gap in America about saying China is a strategic threat and then what do you do about it,” Arha said.