Washington’s charm offensive and the US-Pacific Island Country Summit

The US Pacific Island Country Summit at the White House, 28-29 September 2022 (Ron Przysucha/US State Department)

Washington’s charm offensive and the US-Pacific Island Country Summit – Devpolicy Blog from the Development Policy Centre

by Terence Wesley-Smith and Gerard Finin November 3, 2022

At the US-Pacific Island Country Summit, held 28-29 September, President Biden wooed Pacific Island leaders with red carpet treatment, a positive vision for the future, and promises to address regional priorities. Although China is not mentioned in the resulting Declaration on US-Pacific Partnership – and only once in the Pacific Partnership Strategy which was also launched at the event – escalating China-US competition was clearly the strategic elephant in the room. Whether Washington’s efforts will succeed in curbing Beijing’s ambitions in Oceania, particularly its supposed pursuit of a naval facility, remains to be seen. Island leaders were pleased to have their concerns taken seriously, but they are aware that little of what the US brought to the table is new, and that much of the heralded US$810 million in expanded funding is for programs unlikely to eventuate soon.

The summit represents a milestone in the broader outreach campaign initiated by the Trump administration and accelerated under the direction of Biden’s National Security Council. The administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy promotes a positive regional vision based on democratic values and networks of “like-minded” allies, as well as bolstering the ability “to deter aggression and counter coercion” by military means. New US-led alliances, such as the Quad and the AUKUS trilateral security pact, reflect shared interest in containing China and blunting its ability to challenge the US-dominated international system. The tacit aim of the Pacific Partnership Strategy is to bind the strategically important islands of Oceania to the US by offering to address their needs.

The White House summit was an important part of this charm offensive. The leaders were gratified that the agenda closely reflected their expressed priorities. They also appreciated the parade of top-level participants, a who’s-who in Biden’s cabinet and congressional leadership. The island leaders were particularly impressed by Biden’s style as he personally welcomed delegates, led an impromptu tour of the Oval Office, and distributed his trademark aviator sunglasses as gifts.

That the summit yielded a joint declaration was a victory for the Biden administration, especially since Beijing failed to win regional approval for its proposed Common Development Vision in May 2022. The Pacific leaders could claim that the document mirrored their own 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent launched in July. They successfully made changes to the draft prior to the summit, adding more about climate change, and overcoming Washington’s opposition to mentioning US nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands. They were also able to remove references to China, as well as a provision that bilateral security agreements be approved by others in the region. These changes allowed all participating countries to endorse the declaration, including Solomon Islands which had earlier indicated serious reservations.

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