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US launches more 'charm offensive' amid battle with China for influence in Pacific island region



 

By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

  

Washington has learned from long years of neglect. China slowly made inroads into the Pacific island region and lured island state leaders with its Belt and Road Initiative. The Solomon Islands and Kiribati’s diplomatic switch from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019 was a wake-up call.

 

The U.S. has since been ramping up its Pacific engagement and splashing economic assistance, bent on outcompeting Beijing.

 

“Since the first Summit in 2022, we have announced plans to work with Congress to provide over $8 billion in new funding and programs,” said Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of the State Department.

 

“The Pacific islands face significant challenges to their security and prosperity including climate change and economic shocks, making the region more vulnerable to influence from China,” Kritenbrink said in his testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on March 14.

 

He warned that China's intent is to reshape the international order. “We are not in the business of forcing countries to choose. But we do want to ensure that countries in the Pacific have a choice, and the ability to make their own sovereign decisions, free from coercion,” the State Department official said.

 

Michael Schiffer, assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Bureau for Asia, said confronting the growing tensions in the region require a set of complementary strategies.


 “The only way for us to tackle complex problems in the Indo-Pacific is to align the three D’s of diplomacy, defense, and development, drawing on our successful whole-of-government approach,” he said. “We have learned the hard way that one ‘D’ without the others—or even two ‘Ds’ without the third—is not sustainable and not a pathway to success.”

 

But "debt" and "dependence" are not part of this recommendation. Schiffer said USAID offers a different development model that is not anchored on debt and dependence but focuses on “economic trade and integration, inclusivity, locally-led solutions.”

 

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Schiffer said Beijing has capitalized on instability and natural disasters to offer help that often comes with strings attached. He mentioned the debt-ridden Tonga, for example. After assisting Tonga during the volcanic eruption in 2022, China “followed up the next year proposing security agreements,” he said.  “In contrast, USAID formed partnerships with organizations in Tonga that allowed USAID to swiftly build a $2.6 million multi-sector response and recovery effort that also prepares Tongan communities to be more resilient to future disasters.”

 

In recent years, the U.S. reinvigorated its diplomatic ties with the island nations starting with the opening of embassies in the Solomon Islands and Tonga. Washington has appointed the first-ever U.S. envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum to enhance cooperation with the region’s leading foreign policy body.

 

Kritenbrink said plans are afoot to open a U.S. embassy in Vanuatu later this year while the next target is Kiribati.  Washington has recognized the Cook Islands and Niue as sovereign and independent states.

 

Meanwhile, Peace Corps volunteers have returned to Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, and are planning to return to Vanuatu later this year and Palau in 2025.

 

“We have heard the importance of robust presence from Pacific Island leaders,” Schiffer said.

 

Last year, USAID re-opened its Pacific Islands Regional Mission in Suva, Fiji and elevated its presence in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu to a Country Representative Office based in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. “This allows us to benefit more Pacific Islanders, strengthen our actions on the ground, and build an enduring and genuine partnership with the region,” Schiffer said.

 

The most notable feat was the recent signing of the Compact of Free Association Amendment Act of 2024, which renews U.S. economic assistance to Palau, the FSM and the Marshall Islands. “Our Compacts of Free Association with these countries, and the economic assistance we provide in support of those compacts, are key to maintaining the stability and prosperity of our closest Pacific island partners and to safeguarding our shared long-term defense and strategic interests in the region,” Kritenbrink said.

 

On the defense side, Assistant Secretary of Defense Ely Ratner said the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s Joint Interagency Task Force West, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard also helped strengthen maritime domain awareness in the Pacific islands. "In Fiji, for example, the task force has supported the local government’s Maritime Surveillance and Rescue Coordination Center with computer equipment and updated software for maritime surveillance activities," he said.

 

"The department’s security cooperation efforts extend beyond the maritime sphere,” Ratner said, citing the State Partnership Program that enables people-to-people ties while building partner capacity. “The Nevada National Guard is partnered with Tonga, Fiji, and Samoa, and the Wisconsin National Guard is partnered with Papua New Guinea,” he said.

 

The Guam/Hawaii partnership expanded to the Philippines and Palau this year. “Another of our most enduring programs is our Civic Action Team in Palau, a tri-military service initiative that supports the community through construction projects, medical civic actions and community relations,” Ratner

said.

 

"Peace, stability, and prosperity in the Pacific islands are essential for advancing

 a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The U.S. economy – and indeed, the global economy – relies upon hundreds of billions of dollars in maritime trade that flows through the Pacific, with the Pacific islands forming a strategically critical geography," Ratner said.




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