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Tug of war

Pacific Reflections By Gabriel McCoard

By now, either it happened, or it didn’t. Either the United States dove off the fiscal cliff and defaulted on its financial obligations— by not increasing the debt ceiling, which authorizes the federal government to make payments it already agreed to make— or it didn’t because Congress or President Biden blinked first and they hammered out some sort of agreement to keep the status quo humming.

As press time approached without a deal in place, I wouldn’t guess what might happen; I often quip that history proves me wrong when I try to predict the future.

There’s no shortage of commentary on the debt ceiling, but there’s one casualty that has received less notice at the moment: the Pacific Islands Forum.

For the first time ever, the president of the United States was slated to meet with the PIF at its get-together in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. While the separation of powers’ game of chicken played out in Washington, D.C., President Biden traveled to Japan to meet with the heads of state of the G7, but afterward, Air Force One did not turn south either to Papua New Guinea or Australia.

Which is not to suggest that the debt ceiling and attending a meeting of a regional inter-governmental organization are of equal priority. The economic ripples from a U.S. default-led recession would churn into a tsunami of despair when it reached the Pacific, throwing much of the region into dire poverty – or direr poverty. This in turn could give the U.S. rival in the region, China, yet another opening to wield what we dread most: influence. Desperate times call for Chinese investment. And military footholds.

While Biden’s attendance would have been largely symbolic, simply showing up can yield dividends. Soft power builds a bridge over which hard power can cross. China certainly faces headwinds in its ambitions, but China knows how to be present and patient.

I’ve been dismissive of the PIF in the past, and I haven’t changed my mind. Two years ago, the Micronesian members led by Palau threatened to leave over allegations that PIF leadership violated a “gentlemen’s agreement” over who would fill the seat of secretary general. Amid concerns of the PIF losing credibility were rumblings that a non-unified Forum would create an opening for China.

That row eventually mended, giving way to, among other things, Pacific heads of state telling the Climate Change Olympics, excuse me, the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, that Palau might as well be bombed, and that the International Court of Justice should declare that nations have an obligation to mitigate climate change under unenforceable customary international law.

The junket-forward philosophy of development has for too long neglected accountability and has failed to create opportunity for those most in need.

I thought then, as I do now, that PIF unity is inconsequential to China’s Pacific ambitions. To hold influence, it’s time to replace regionalism with delivering real development for the people who need it, because China will do what’s in its interest, either by working with the PIF or working around it.

New developments have added nuance, of course. In February, China named a special envoy (Qian Bo, former Ambassador to Fiji) to the region. The U.S. has named its own envoy as the White House brags about the $1.5 billion in U.S. support to the region over the past decade. Washington has also deployed top-level diplomats to work out financial agreements with countries that already granted the U.S. military access.

For his part, Sen. John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, with support from, among others, Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, seeks to “solidify” the position of U.S. special envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum by making it a permanent seat. Appointment to the seat would require Senate confirmation. Kennedy considers this “one of the clearest and easiest steps that Congress can take to counter this communist antagonism.”

The bill would elevate the status of the special envoy to the PIF to an ambassador and cabinet-level-type appointment. Since this is not a federal judgeship, the Senate might actually confirm it.

It’s a perfectly fine idea; there’s no reason for any member of Congress to oppose it. But will it matter?

Might I suggest a change in focus? Focusing on the PIF is fine, but how about the sovereignties that make it up?


How about this: if we say we’re helping a country, then why don’t we actually help? If we fund road construction, should we not ensure that the road actually gets built? How about a drinking water index? That each country receiving our assistance has safe public drinking water? Or consistent electricity? We can even post the American flag next to each establishment, alongside a banner emblazoning, “You’re Welcome.” Unfortunately, I must emphasize that it be in local language.

Soft power builds bridges.

As the U.S. wrings its hands with anxiety over restraining a rival in a region it largely ignored in the past, it’s also hamstringing itself to effectively respond.

Domestic politics and foreign policy often collide. Missing a meeting certainly doesn’t help.

Turns out being a superpower is not so easy.

Gabriel McCoard is an attorney who previously worked in Palau and Chuuk State. Send feedback to

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