In August, the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources conducted a field congressional hearing on Guam to "examine the importance of the U.S. territories and the freely associated states to the United States’ ability to counter China’s malign influence and maintain our nation’s strategic interests in the region.”
Testifying at the hearing, Pacific island leaders upped the ante, telling the committee how much it would cost to bar China from their shores. The U.S. lawmakers expressed their willingness to give.
It was the first field hearing in 15 years, forming part of Washington’s fanfare to gratify the territories, make its presence felt and keep Pacific allies on the U.S. side.
After decades of being ignored and neglected, Pacific island nations saw an unprecedented flurry of visits by U.S. officials throughout the year.
The year 2023 was particularly crucial for the U.S.-FAS alliance as the economic provisions of the Compacts of Free Association lapsed on Sept. 30 for the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, while Palau’s packages are set to expire in 2024. The White House is dangling $7.1 billion in new funding and programs for the FAS over the next 20 years.
High-level calls by gift-bearing U.S. officials extended beyond the Micronesia region. The list of visitors included Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff who traveled to Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, Palau, Samoa and Tonga.
As the region's relevance to U.S. foreign policy continues to grow, Washington has been relentlessly wooing the previously cold-shouldered Pacific Islands Forum.
In September, President Biden hosted the second U.S.-Pacific Islands Forum Summit, which yielded another pledge of $200 million in funding for new activities and programs, including those related to the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent. The new pledge supplements the $810 million promised to the region last year, bringing the total to $1 billion.
On top of this amount, the U.S. government has committed to pitch in an additional $2.5 million for the East Micronesian Cable project that will link Kosrae in the FSM, Tarawa in Kiribati and Nauru to the existing HANTRU-1 cable landing point located in Pohnpei. The White House has also announced a $3 million investment in a feasibility study for the new Central Pacific Cable between Guam and American Samoa that would complete the triangle with Hawaii and would extend to 12 Pacific island countries.
After opening new embassies in the Solomons Islands, Vanuatu and Tonga, the U.S. announced plans to open embassies in the Cook Islands and Niue as part of what regional observers dubbed “charm offensive” to block China’s inroads to the Pacific.
Such lavished attention is all fine and dandy but regional pundits cautioned the U.S. against making grandiose promises without following through.
“While increased U.S. attention on the Pacific islands is welcomed, U.S. credibility, as well as America’s preeminent position, will be at risk if claims of a new commitment to the region are not matched by additional resources,” John T. Hennessey-Niland, former U.S. ambassador to Palau, wrote in an op-ed piece published in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs. “I worry that we risk overpromising and underdelivering if this ‘new’ rhetoric about the importance of the region is not supported by additional resources that focus on what I call the three big C’s—the three most significant challenges in the Pacific: China, climate and capacity building.”
The pending enactment of new agreements under the compacts with FAS is beginning to make Palau impatient.“I think the most important image that it projects on Palau and the people of Palau is, when the U.S. commits to something, are they really committed?” Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. said in an interview with Voice of America. “We didn't believe that our value is truly realized by the United States."
The dilly-dallying on COFA is such a disappointment, according to Christophe Bosquillon, a member of the Pacific Basin Economic Council. “American dithering is putting the nation’s ability to effectively operate in and secure the vastness of the Pacific at risk,” he wrote in an op-ed piece for Global Security Review.
The stalled congressional action on the COFA agreements reveals “an imbalance of power and asymmetric equities America’s closest Pacific island allies struggle to overcome,” according to Howard Hills, who served as legal adviser for Territorial Status Negotiations, Executive Office of the President and National Security Council.
While acknowledging that a little goes a long way in the islands in terms of federal budgets and resources, Hennessey-Niland advised the U.S. against shortsightedness. "While words are cheap and may buy us some time in the short term to restore our standing, we need to invest in these islands for the long term."