What Did the US-Pacific Summit Achieve?

President Joe Biden hosts the U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on September 29, 2022. Credit: U.S. State Department photo

What Did the US-Pacific Summit Achieve? – The Diplomat

For all the talk of China and geopolitics, climate change and funding remained at the top of Pacific leaders’ agenda.

By Patricia O’Brien October 06, 2022

On September 28, while Hurricane Ian provided a devastating illustration of the terrible costs of climate change, leaders from 14 Pacific nations and territories gathered in Washington, D.C., for a historic summit in which climate action was top of the agenda. The juxtaposition of Hurricane Ian in Florida, where the death toll and devastation put it in the “upper echelons” of storms to have hit the U.S., and the gathered chorus of Pacific voices, who have been clamoring to be heard for decades about the existential crisis that climate change poses to their island homes, was poignant. As the documentary “Rising Waters” put it in 2000, the Pacific Islands are “the warning system for the whole world to see.” Twenty-two years on, as the rains from Hurricane Ian fell on Washington in the days after the Pacific leaders departed, it is time to take stock of what the summit achieved and what happens next.

The U.S.-Pacific Summit: Main Takeaways

The Pacific region has received a torrent of attention from the U.S. government (and China) in 2022. The summit represented the culmination of the “warp speed” U.S. diplomacy and policy development over the past months. Climate change may have been on the top of the summit agenda because the Pacific Islands Forum has insisted for many years that it is the region’s highest priority, a position the Biden administration fully supports. That said, geopolitics is the main driver of the recent U.S. efforts. As President Joe Biden put it to the summit, “the security of America, quite frankly, and the world depends on your security and the security of the Pacific Islands.”

The summit produced several documents outlining how the United States proposes to bind itself into the Pacific Islands by both creating new programs and structures and using existing ones more deeply. During the summit, the White House released the Pacific Partnership StrategyThe Roadmap for a 21st-Century U.S.-Pacific Island Partnership, and an 11-point Declaration on the U.S.-Pacific Partnership that, in the end, all parties signed; before the conference Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said he would not.

Reportedly, Sogavare’s resistance was due to language in the declaration that obligated signatories to discuss new security relationships with regional impacts with all parties, a thinly veiled reference to the secret China-Solomon Islands security agreement signed in April. This language was subsequently removed in order to clarify that Solomon Islands, and other nations, did not have to “choose sides.”


A Long History of Engagement and Disengagement

Caution about the relative scale of commitment compared to China and other U.S. priority areas, and whether the pledges will actualize, hits on historic problems the U.S. has encountered whenever it attempted to up its engagement with the Pacific. This has happened multiple times since the 1980s. In the mid-1980s, geostrategic competition with the Soviet Union prompted the United States to negotiate the three COFA agreements and the Tuna Treaty. The triennial Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders (PICL) began meeting in Honolulu in 1980. In 1990, then-U.S. President George H. W. Bush, who had a long personal history with the region dating back to his war service, attended the PICL. He spoke warmly of the Pacific islands “as an aquatic continent” and “America’s place in the extended family of Pacific nations.”

Can the U.S. Pacific Push Succeed?

So is the 2022 U.S. Pacific push going to be different? One cause for optimism is that the United States is joining forces with Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom through the Partners in the Blue Pacific initiative, announced in June. Since the U.N. General Assembly last month, Germany and Canada have also stated their intention to join. While the pooling of resources will be a great boost to U.S. aims, the question remains about how these complex efforts will be coordinated in the notoriously complicated setting for delivery of services the Pacific Islands entails. There is a need for Pacific-based and Pacific-led entities to orchestrate these complex challenges if they are going to work and be sustained over the long-term.

Patricia O’Brien is a historian, author, analyst and commentator on Australia and Oceania. She is a faculty member in Asian Studies at Georgetown University and in the Department of Pacific Affairs, Australian National University, and is Adjunct Faculty in the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington DC

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