Pampered with attention
Picked apart by China and heavily courted by the United States, the Pacific island region has become the superpowers' battleground for dominance.
After experiencing long years of attention drought, the region— alternately nicknamed “Oceania” or “Blue Pacific," whose turquoise waters beckon the Trojan horse-bearing Communist China— is now being profusely showered with love by Washington.
In the past three years, high-ranking Washington officials have been jet-setting to the region, promising that the U.S. would never take it for granted ever again.
Backed by Australia, New Zealand and the UK, the U.S. has amplified its campaign to engage the region, announcing plans to beef up diplomatic ties with island states by opening more embassies, reinstating the Peace Corps Mission and extending more assistance packages.
During the two-day U.S.-Pacific Islands Country Summit at the White House, Pacific island nations gave their nod to the text of a joint declaration of partnership with the United States presented by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Blinken said the U.S. is committed to working closely with the leaders of the 12 Pacific island nations in attendance on issues including climate change, fisheries and maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region.
Clearly, China’s emergence as a force to be reckoned with has presented many island nations with economic options and new geopolitical leverage. But being pampered with suffocating attention from multiple fronts, the Pacific island nations get the hint that their sovereignty is at stake.
At the conclusion of the 12th Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders meeting in August, island states agreed to stand as a unified bloc to deal with regional issues collectively and guard their turf.
But what are they, really? “Partners or pawns?” experts on Pacific island affairs asked.
“While welcoming the initiative, island leaders may be skeptical of the claimed ‘deep and enduring partnership,’ and suggested that the U.S. is itself a ‘proud Pacific nation,’” authors Terence Wesley-Smith and Gerard Finin, wrote in an article on Devpolicy Blog, a website owned by the Development Policy Center at The Australian National University.
“U.S. policy toward Oceania has always been driven by strategic interests, and Washington has long focused its resources on the strategically located American-affiliated islands and relied on allies to sustain Western interests elsewhere in this vast region,” they added.
Guam hardly engages in the advocacies of neighboring islands. As a U.S. territory under federal foreign affairs jurisdiction, Guam has limited opportunities for membership in regional groupings.
The U.S. is Guam’s only option and the source of its military industry. The island is home to the U.S. defense post in this part of the world.
Local leaders invoke the island’s strategic value as leverage to, quoting Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero, “milk the feds.” She recommended the same strategy for the Federated States of Micronesia when the nation finally got hit with a Covid-19 outbreak after two years of being coronavirus-free. Ask the U.S. for more money, the governor advised President David Panuelo.
Nevertheless, Guam is slowly breaking out of the bubble, seeing the need to join hands with Pacific communities amid the region’s emergence as the most sought-after continent. Guam has signed onto the Pacific Islands Forum’s 2050 Strategy for the Blue Continent.
Most of the Pacific island states have adopted the “friend to all, enemy to none” foreign policy, opting to be more programmatic and neutral on geopolitics.
“A fundamental problem in the U.S.-Pacific dialogue is that island leaders do not regard China as a threat to their security and do not find U.S. references to ‘rules-based order’ or ‘bad actors’ particularly relevant,” Wesley-Smith and Finin wrote.
“Washington objects to China’s militarization, but from a Pacific perspective it is the Pentagon upping the ante in Oceania, through the AUKUS agreement expanding Australia’s naval capacity to engage with China, increasing military activity in Guam, the FSM and Palau, as well as support for the Manus naval facility in Papua New Guinea,” they added.
In the end, Pacific island leaders have made it known that their allegiance is not for sale, as they prefer to be engaged on their own terms “rather than as part of a wider endeavor to counter China.”