- A series of recent trips by US officials to small island countries in the Pacific and Indian oceans reflects those islands’ role in the US’s plans to counter China’s growing clout.
- The US has longstanding ties with many of those countries but doesn’t always attach the same importance to issues they care about, which could be a problem, experts say.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Defense Secretary Mark Esper traveled to India last month for the third annual US-India ministerial meeting, underscoring the US’s growing ties with one of Asia’s biggest countries.
But the summit was bookended by Esper’s historic trip to Palau and a stop in Maldives and Sri Lanka by Pompeo, a reflection of small island nations’ importance to US plans to counter China’s growing influence in the region.
Esper’s visit to Palau in late August was the first by a US secretary of defense, but the US has “had a continuous military presence there since 1969,” Esper said at an event in October.
Palau President Tommy Remengesau greeted Esper with a specific request, asking the US military to “build joint-use facilities, then come and use them regularly.”
Remengesau repeated his request when Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite visited in October. “Some of Palau’s chief infrastructure needs … are also opportunities to strengthen US military readiness,” Remengesau wrote in another letter.
“Palau is a committed ally,” Braithwaite said at an event after his trip. “They’re right there at the tip of the spear, on the edge of Chinese influence, and they’ve committed themselves to us.”
Pacific and Indian ocean island states have become venues for competition between the US and China, which values their location and their diplomatic support, especially as Beijing seeks to turn more countries against Taiwan.
The US has territories in the region, like Guam, and partnerships with other countries there, but Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands have signed Compacts of Free Association with the US, which are “even closer than alliances in a way,” Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corporation, told Insider.
“These countries outsource their militaries to the United States, and the US gets near-exclusive access to an area [of the Pacific] that’s the size of the continental US,” Grossman said.
Their location in the Second Island Chain provides what Grossman called “uninhibited sea lines of communication” from Hawaii to to the First Island Chain, which includes Taiwan and the Philippines.
“It’s a really big deal” for the US to have those compacts “so the US military can maintain this near-exclusive access to the area,” Grossman added.
The US military command responsible for the area changed its name from Pacific Command to Indo-Pacific Command in 2018 to reflect what US officials said were linkages between the Pacific and Indian oceans.
The US approach to security in the region “doesn’t stop at the Straits of Malacca,” Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell said at a briefing before Pompeo’s trip.
The US, like India, is wary of Beijing’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean — specifically in the Maldives and Sri Lanka.
In Sri Lanka, Pompeo touted US engagement, saying the US “won’t show up with debt packages that a country can’t possibly repay” — likely referring to a deal that gave China long-term access to a port there.
In Maldives, Pompeo announced the opening of the US’s first embassy there. “Your role here in the Indo-Pacific and in the international community is increasingly important, and my country wants to remain a good partner,” Pompeo said while there.
Indian Ocean island nations will play “a key role” in geopolitical competition there, and boosting engagement with them will be “a priority for many,” Darshana Baruah, an expert on the region at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Insider.
Baruah said Pompeo’s visit, as well as the US-Maldives defense agreement announced in September, “reflects Washington’s increasing interest” but noted that the US’s overall presence in the region is still “quite thin.”
“Exercises, training, and even port calls from the US Navy … especially beyond Maldives [are] weak,” Baruah said. “Given Washington’s priorities in the Pacific and the Middle East, we are yet to see how and to what degree is the US willing to invest in the Indian Ocean.”
An existential blind spot
But that engagement is undercut by what many of those countries see as US disregard for climate change.
“That’s our one huge blind spot,” Grossman said. “It’s an existential issue for these countries. They’re already seeing the oceans rise. They may not be around in 50 to 100 years because of it.”
One of President Donald Trump’s first acts was withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, an agreement that Pompeo called “a joke” while in Maldives, where climate change is already having an impact.
Australia, one of the US’s closest allies, remains in the Paris deal but hasn’t done much else. A lack of action hurts the standing of both in the region, according to Herve Lemahieu, an expert at Australia’s Lowy Institute think tank.
“The existential threat in the Pacific is not China. It’s climate change,” Lemahieu told Insider in an October interview.
President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to rejoin the Paris deal. Pacific Island states welcome that, but a divided government may keep Biden from doing much more.
Governments that want those countries’ support have to show they take climate change seriously, Lemahieu said.
“The superpowers that look like they are most engaged on the issues” Pacific and Indian Ocean states care about “will command the greatest soft power,” Lemahieu said.