The United States will host an event in New York this week that aims to better coordinate assistance to island nations in the Pacific – and moves to counter China getting strategic footholds in the region.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will host the Partners in the Blue Pacific countries on Thursday which has been proposed to do deal with two big issues – the potentially “dire” ramifications from climate change, and rising competition in the region from China.
The Partners in the Blue Pacific (PBP) group was formed in June and includes the United States, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
India has observer status with the group and a few other countries would join the meeting, White House Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell said in remarks at an event in New York.
Campbell said circumstances for the Pacific islands countries were “much more dire” than in the past.
“Their livelihoods are threatened,” he said, pointing to the “existential” threat they face from climate change and the severe impact of the Covid pandemic on tourism revenue and business.
“Much of the assistance in the Pacific is not as well coordinated as it could be. We have not learned as much about best practices. We’re going to seek to do that as we go forward, building on the existing institutions and engagements of the Pacific.”
Some different countries would be doing more in the Pacific diplomatically “in terms of business prospects and aid and assistance,” Campbell added.
And there was an “undeniable strategic component” to the stepped-up engagement, he said.
“We’ve seen in the last several years a more ambitious China that seeks to develop footprints militarily and the like in the Indo Pacific … that has caused some anxiety with partners like Australia and New Zealand, even countries in the region as a whole.”
US to Host Pacific Islands Summit as China Woos Region
Coincides With UN General Assembly
The Blue Pacific event will be held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York and comes ahead of a summit the next week on Sept 28-29 US President Joe Biden plans to host with Pacific island leaders.
Campbell said the summit reflected “a desire to demonstrate clearly our larger commitment to the Pacific going forward.”
He said Washington did not want to see the region descend into “zero-sum” competition and he looked forward to conversations with Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and his delegation.
“We are going to step up our game with respect to supporting a variety of initiatives across the Pacific that will positively affect the Solomons as well,” he said. “But we’ve also been clear about what our concerns are and we would not want to see … a capacity for long-range power projection.”
US-China competition for influence in the Pacific islands has intensified this year after China signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands, prompting warnings of a militarisation of the region.
Pacific island leaders said this month Washington should accept their priorities, making climate change – not superpower competition – the most urgent security task.
‘Vital Buffer Zone’
China sees the Pacific islands as an area of significant strategic interest and the United States should strengthen its commitment to north Pacific island states, now in talks to renew a defence compact, to maintain a vital military buffer, a report released on Tuesday by a US Congress-funded think tank said.
China had made progress in the Pacific on geostrategic goals it has been unable to achieve elsewhere, said the report for the United States Institute for Peace, whose co-authors include former senior military officials.
This was cause for concern but not alarm, the report added, saying the US should bolster support for island states in the north Pacific where it had the strongest historical ties.
The Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and Palau are sovereign nations known as Freely Associated States (FAS), after signing compacts in the late 1980s that give the US defence responsibility and the right to military bases.
The compacts, which expire in 2023 and 2024, are being renegotiated, and the report warned that these states could look to China for funding if negotiations fail.
“The vast FAS territorial seas, which span much of the northern Pacific, are an important strategic buffer between US defence assets in Guam and Hawaii and East Asian littoral waters,” said the report, whose authors include Philip Davidson, a former commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, and David Stilwell, a former US assistant secretary of state.
If Beijing were to succeed in bringing one of these states into its sphere, “it would imperil US military capabilities in a strategically vital geographic command area and open the door to a broader reordering of regional architecture with implications well beyond the Pacific region,” it said.
A US missile defence test range in the Marshall Islands is critical to US space and missile-defense capabilities, it added.
China is seeking to enhance its access to ports and Exclusive Economic Zones across the Pacific, in a bid to frustrate efforts by the United States to project military power, increase intelligence gathering and surveillance capabilities, reduce Taiwan’s diplomatic partners, and promote the Chinese model of political and economic development, the report said.
“China views the Pacific Islands as an area of significant strategic interest,” it said.
Washington needs to provide an alternative to Chinese economic assistance to “counter Beijing’s efforts to capitalise on regional perceptions of neglect and abandonment”.
More resources were needed to monitor China‘s increasing activity in the FAS, where Chinese research vessels with “military utility” have been spotted without permission.
The Federated States of Micronesia recently agreed to develop new US military facilities, and Palau requested the US build airstrips, ports and bases, which “Washington should consider seriously to the extent that it aligns with defence needs,” the report said.
- Reuters with additional editing by Jim Pollard
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