Fearful of growing Chinese influence, the Trump White House pledged increased engagement with the Pacific islands. Will Joe Biden follow suit?
During a regional tour to promote US strategic policy in Oceania in March 2019, Matt Pottinger stopped off in the Solomon Islands capital, Honiara. As Asia director of the US National Security Council, he met with Taiwan’s vice-minister of foreign affairs, Hsu Szu-chien, to discuss a common concern: would a new Solomon Islands government shift diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing?
Pottinger was travelling with Alexander Gray, the NSC’s newly appointed director for Oceania and Indo-Pacific Security. Gray’s appointment was a first: never before had a US administration appointed a White House NSC official responsible not only for Australia and New Zealand but also for the Pacific islands.
The White House’s concern was justified. Six months after the visit, Solomon Islands prime minister Manasseh Sogavare announced his country would end its long relationship with Taiwan in favour of diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic. Days later, President Taneti Maamau of Kiribati followed suit, leaving Taiwan with just four diplomatic partners in the region. Donald Trump, already in the midst of his trade war with China, announced that the United States would engage more deeply with the Pacific islands.
The Biden administration looks likely to try to maintain this outreach. Island leaders have welcomed the new US president’s early commitments on development funding in the region and his decision to rejoin the Paris agreement on climate change. But they’re aware that Biden’s Pacific strategy is largely driven by the US defence department, and that his emerging “Indo-Pacific” policy is focused less on island nations than on India, Australia, Japan and other larger strategic partners.
Island leaders are particularly worried that they will be trampled in the intensified competition between the United States and China. Some of them are voicing fears that the new Western-initiated strategic concept of the “Indo-Pacific” will downplay the region’s own security priorities. “The big powers are doggedly pursuing strategies to widen and extend their reach and inculcating a far-reaching sense of insecurity,” says Samoan prime minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi. “The renewed vigour with which a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ strategy is being advocated and pursued leaves us with much uncertainty. For the Pacific, there is a real risk of privileging ‘Indo’ over the ‘Pacific.’”
Donald Trump’s foreign policy failures were many, but his administration did bolster staffing and resources for Pacific island engagement. To promote the administration’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy, Matt Pottinger and Alex Gray intensified White House engagement with security and intelligence officials in Australia and New Zealand, and — in an unprecedented move for National Security Council officials — visited Canberra, Wellington, Port Vila and Honiara in early 2019.
Pottinger also played a key role in preparing the top-secret 2018 “US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific,” which was unexpectedly declassified during Trump’s final chaotic days in office. Prioritising strategic competition with China, the strategy aimed to strengthen ties to India, Japan, Korea and Australia and “ensure the Pacific Islands (e.g. the US territories, Freely Associated States, the Melanesian and Polynesian states) remain aligned with United States.” (The freely associated states, which have a formal compact with the United States, are the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands.) Among its action proposals were efforts to “solidify our diplomatic, military, intelligence, economic, development assistance, and informational advantages across the Pacific Islands.” The sentence immediately after these words was redacted.
Even as the Trump administration deepened its trade war with Beijing, Australia and New Zealand were becoming increasingly concerned about growing Chinese influence in the islands region. Both ANZUS allies were working on the “step change” in engagement proposed by prime minister Malcolm Turnbull at the 2016 Pacific Islands Forum in Pohnpei.
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Reporting for this article was supported by a Sean Dorney Grant for Pacific Journalism through the Walkley Public Fund.