The Pacific Island Forum concluded last month in Rarotonga Cook Islands with a significant American presence. The United States' high-profile delegation was led by U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas Greenfield and more than 100 individuals. Frankie Reed, former U.S. ambassador to Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Tonga and Tuvalu, is the designated U.S. envoy to the PIF. This dramatic presence included AID, Climate Change officials, the Peace Corps, the National Security Council, the U.S. Coast Guard and Tom Udall, U.S. ambassador to New Zealand.
Guam Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero sent Carlotta Leon Guerrero, the chief advisor for military and regional affairs. The visit should have been higher profile since Guam applied for associate membership to PIF and was under consideration.
But somewhere in the process, Guam’s application did not make it to the full agenda. Apparently, the application has become a source of contention between Guam and the State Department along with the National Security Council.
The governor’s staff has already heard from State Department representatives. Kurt Campbell expressed his concerns about Guam’s participation directly to PIF. He is currently the NSC coordinator for the Indo-Pacific. He has been nominated by President Biden to serve as the deputy secretary of State. He has held assistant secretary positions at State and the Pentagon in the past. He is seen as Biden’s Indo-Pacific czar and was coordinating Obama’s pivot to Asia.
Guam’s governor was invited as a kind of observer to Biden’s first Pacific Island Summit in 2022. The summit included all members of PIF, ostensibly independent island nations. However, New Caledonia and French Polynesia, both French territories, are also members of the Forum, Subsequently, Guam decided to apply for membership.
Biden’s second Pacific Island Summit in 2023 did not include the governor although an invitation was extended two or three days in advance of the meeting. It seemed like a perfunctory text rather than an actual phone call.
State Department representatives have asked Guam officials, “What would happen if Guam took a position contrary to the U.S.?” in an international forum like PIF. Apparently, the State Department has decided to avoid answering the question by discouraging Guam’s application.
This has been communicated to both PIF and the governor’s office. In public, Guam is being ignored by the Biden administration on these regional issues and in the PIF. Despite the desire of the State Department to make sure that Guam is on the “same team” internationally, the island is not being given a chance to play on any team.
For Guam, it feels like the island is being ignored in public and taken to task in private. There will be opportunities for future meetings between island officials and State Department representatives as well as the Biden Administration. This matter needs to be pressed directly. I wonder what the conversations are like between Paris and the two French territories when it comes to international positioning. Perhaps Guam could get some hints at how that works between a colonial power and a colony in future conversations between Washington D.C. and Guam.
For her part, Linda Thomas-Greenfield participated in several high-profile meetings and was allowed to speak and the delegation met with representatives of various countries and regional organizations. State issued several “readouts” on the meetings between Thomas-Greenfield and heads of Pacific Island countries, but none seemed substantive.
She declared that the United States is a "Pacific country” and that $US8 billion will be spent by America in the Pacific. Some individuals scoffed at the notion of being a Pacific country and asked whether the $US8 billion included the over $US7 billion going to the recently concluded Compacts of Free Association with the countries in the North Pacific.
She also announced support for the Forum's 2022 Blue Pacific Continent strategy. This initiative is described as a movement for Pacific peoples and their cultural values. A series of climate change-related objectives, economic plans and political relationships are articulated. The territories are specifically included as being part of the Blue Pacific Continent, but they are not really included in the planning.
The U.S. is a Pacific country, but its physical presence in the Blue Continent is actually made possible through the territories and the Pacific peoples who inhabit them. But the U.S. still hasn’t considered specific roles for its territories in the Blue Continent. The State Department obviously thinks of it as an initiative for independent countries.
In an interesting statement, Biden announced at the second Pacific Island Summit that no country should lose its “statehood” or membership in the United Nations if the islands sink into the ocean as a result of “sea-level rise driven by human-induced climate change.” I guess if it happened to the colonies, they would not lose their colonial status.
Most of the attention in PIF was about Australia’s “treaty” with Tuvalu to accept up to 280 migrants (called special mobility pathway) annually for the small island country. Some $AU16 million will be given for climate change adaptation. Former Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga is outraged by this and has stated so in the Tuvalu Parliament. Like so many of these treaties, the Australian military can enter Tuvalu under a “security arrangement” and deny access to others.
Australia flexed its muscles at PIF in a friendly, helpful way much like the U.S. Everyone is committed to resolving climate change, but Australia continues to rely on fossil fuels with coal and natural gas leading the way. Both America and Australia also offer soft power diplomacy initiatives regarding women empowerment, youth development and AID-type assistance. China continues to give out “soft loans” to Fiji, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.
All of these high-profile initiatives, assistance, treaties and complications are part of the strategy to counter China.
Meanwhile, in territories like Guam, the counter strategy means more anti-missile defense systems, live firing ranges, and increased numbers of military personnel and contractors. It also means managing Guam to not assert itself in international forums.
But even if Guam were allowed to have a separate voice, the bigger powers would still find a way to manage the region in a way consistent with their objectives. Tuvalu and the Micronesian region COFA states are good examples of that.
The Blue Continent needs to work on managing its external relationships in a way consistent with its stated values of independence, sovereignty and culture of Pacific peoples. PIF also needs to figure out what to do with the territories in this 2050 initiative.
Dr. Robert Underwood is the former president of the University of Guam and former member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Send feedback to email@example.com.