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Nauru’s diplomatic shift and the strategic questions in the Pacific


Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi shakes hands with Nauru's Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Lionel Aingimea in Beijing, China, Jan. 24, 2024. Photo courtesy of Xinhua

  

By Naina Rao

 

In a geopolitical chess match with far-reaching consequences, Nauru, a small Pacific island nation, has made a strategic move that could reshape the dynamics of the region. The country's decision to switch diplomatic recognition to Beijing and adhere to the one-China principle has sparked debates about the broader implications for the Pacific.

 

But foreign policy expert Michael Walsh thinks this is a result of the lack of a U.S. multifaceted strategy that’s tailored to the diverse Pacific sub-regions.


Michael Walsh

Walsh, an affiliate at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service for Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Studies, shared how the Pacific region is often portrayed as a homogeneous entity. When, in fact, it’s a complex tapestry of nations with unique geopolitical and strategic interests.


In an interview with the Pacific Island Times, Walsh stressed the importance of recognizing the distinct subregions of the Pacific, placing Micronesia with particular importance in regards to a U.S. foreign policy strategy in the Pacific.


As a result, he’s advocating for a more comprehensive U.S. strategy in the blue continent: develop three differentiated strategies that separately focus on U.S.-Pacific territories, freely associated states and other Pacific island nations.


“You can’t treat something that’s eight times the size of the United States as if it’s one thing,” Walsh remarked, adding that this approach will address the specific needs and challenges faced by each area.


Looking at the region from a national security and foreign policy perspective, Walsh doesn’t think it’s realistic to place equal value on every place in the Pacific. 


“When I look at the Pacific, I don’t see a Pacific. I see multiple levels that aggregate up into something called the Pacific,” he said. 


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The distinct, overarching, strategies Walsh suggests, may help understand the Micronesian region better. U.S. domestic and foreign interests in the region somehow come “crashing into one another” in Micronesia because of the geographic location of the freely associated states, as well as the non-freely associated states that are Pacific island countries and U.S.-Pacific territories.


The potential risks of Palau and the Marshall Islands switching diplomatic alliances largely rely on Congress’ action (or inaction), and what China has to offer next.


Walsh outlined the challenges posed by congressional reluctance to allocate funds, citing COFA negotiation extensions with these countries as potential flashpoints. 


He acknowledges Palau and the Marshall Islands’ strong commitment to their relationships with the U.S. but questions the broader commitment of the Biden administration to these vital alliances.


 “Is the United States committed to the relationship to the extent that [Palau and the Marshall Islands are] committed to the relationship?” Walsh posed, adding that the concern isn’t whether these countries will turn their backs against the U.S. or vice versa. Rather, it’s going to be about the credibility of the United States, and the White House specifically, “to be able to negotiate and commit to things.”


 When the Solomon Islands signed a 2022 security agreement with China, the U.S. felt the consequence of their lack of urgency during the early days of Biden’s administration. It was only then, Walsh explained, that Washington started pushing things forward. 


That same year, the administration released the Pacific Partnership Strategy, emphasizing that the U.S. is a Pacific nation. A year later, the White House welcomed Pacific leaders for the U.S.-Pacific Island Forum Leaders Summit. 


Moreover, the U.S. and Australia signed a joint infrastructure plan committing $65 million to finance submarine cable internet connectivity for Pacific island countries.

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Yet, Walsh thinks it’s a little too late. The administration’s failure to recognize the risks of China’s growing influence in the region early on, and not taking decisive action upfront, gave the second most populated nation a headstart to intensely compete for the spotlight in the Pacific.


China is set to revive a World War II airstrip in Kiribati for “civilian use.” It also bolstered economic ties with Papua New Guinea when the state-owned Bank of China opened its first representative office last year.


“And the fact that there wasn’t more pushback in Congress kind of shows how low the Pacific falls in the hierarchy of foreign policy priorities in the United States,” Walsh said.


Walsh’s proposed remedy for the U.S. is to re-evaluate the transactional approach it has historically taken with the Pacific, and the shift toward building enduring partnerships. “I think that’s why China is so effective at competing with us in the Pacific right now,” said Walsh, explaining that the presence of more competitors for a Pacific nation in a transactional relationship with the U.S. would encourage the former to assess who can offer them the most and the best. “And so the price of everything goes up, and it becomes much harder and much more competitive,” he added.


There is a possibility of other Pacific nations tilting toward China, as Walsh highlights the risk of China’s strategy to exploit opportunities wherever they arise. “It seems to me that [China] is just throwing as many chips on the table as they can, and hoping some of these bets pay off,” he said. 


Their interest is to “destabilize the status quo” and “undermine American hegemony in the Pacific.” Leveraging opportunities presented by elections and capitalizing on any opening to gain influence is China’s first order of business. 


Approaching Pacific island countries in a way that would maximize the return on their investment in negotiations and foreign affairs with the United States in the future could be a step he sees going in the right direction. 


Another potential move Walsh thinks will work is framing the Pacific strategy to Congress as a way for the U.S. to outcompete China.  “Because on the domestic political side, you actually need to use China in order to push forward support for any sort of new strategy or engagement, or anything that costs money in the Pacific,” he said.


Nauru’s diplomatic shift could be useful in case it actually motivates congressional support and assists in getting things “over the finish line.” But Walsh is uncertain whether this scenario outweighs the risks and costs that come when an ally severs diplomatic allyship to recognize the one-China principle.


“The reality of the situation is that anything that has the ‘outcompete with China’ label put on it is going to have more viability to move through Congress to get financial support,” Walsh said.


Nauru's diplomatic shift is more than just a bilateral affair; it symbolizes the broader challenges the Pacific region faces. Walsh's analysis underscores the intricate geopolitical dance underway, urging the international community to pay closer attention to the unique needs and concerns of each Pacific nation. As the pieces move on this geopolitical chessboard, the consequences of Nauru's move are felt far beyond its shores.




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