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US interest in the pacific islands tested at pacific islands conference of leaders

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The US’ renewed interest in Pacific regionalism will be on show at the Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders (PICL) meeting in Hawai’i this week. While this fora had never previously been a key space for geopolitical influence, attendance by Pacific states representatives will be a signal of receptivity to the US’ increased interest.

Recent developments in regionalism

In July, the Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting was held to great fanfare and media attention in Fiji. Meeting in person for the first time since 2019, the leaders wanted to endorse the landmark 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent and consolidate regional unity, which had been strained by the withdrawal of the ‘Micronesian five’ in 2021. They largely succeeded on both counts, as only Kiribati remained outside the Forum after the meeting and the 2050 Strategy was resoundingly endorsed.

This meeting occurred amidst a backdrop of heightened geopolitical competition. In April, the Solomon Islands signed a security agreement with China that has been interpreted as paving the way for a more permanent Chinese security presence in the region. This was followed by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi touring seven of the Pacific Island states (as well as Timor-Leste) in May and June, seeking support for a proposed regional security and economic pact. While Yi was unsuccessful, China has expressed its intent to continue pursuing the deal.

Keen to avoid the distractions of this geopolitical manoeuvring, Forum leaders had decided not to hold the traditional Forum Dialogue Partner mechanism after their July meeting. This meant that China and the US, both Forum partners, were excluded from a formal opportunity to engage in dialogue with the Forum leaders. However, the meeting host, Fijian President Frank Bainimarama, unexpectedly invited Vice-President Kamala Harris to deliver a virtual address at the Forum itself.

Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders

This week, another key meeting of regional leaders is being held, but to much less fanfare. The PICL will be held in person for the first time since 2016. It was established in 1980 by Hawai’i Governor George Ariyoshi and Fijian statesman Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara for independent and non-independent Pacific state leaders to come together without formal protocols to discuss regional issues.

At first, the PICL met every five years, it then moved to meeting every three years, and since 2020 it has met annually, showing an increased interest by members. While the virtual meeting in 2021 hosted leaders from 11 member states, it is expected that this in-person dialogue will garner significantly greater attendance. For Pacific leaders, in-person discussions are critical to seeking unity, offering another opportunity to soothe any lingering tensions and ensure that regionalism can prevail in other areas. Currently led by President David W. Panuelo of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the PICL is well attended by members in the Northern Pacific Ocean.

In 2021, the only leaders who attended — outside of those in US states (Hawai’i) and territories (Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands), or the Compact of Free Association states (the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau) — were French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, Niue, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands. Notably, this is one of the few regional fora of which Australia and New Zealand are not members, although for the first time both will be sending high-level diplomatic representatives.

The US’ renewed interest in the Pacific Islands

The PICL is hosted by the Pacific Islands Development Programme (PIDP), which is part of the regional architecture under the Council of Regional Organisations in the Pacific. The PIDP sits within the East-West Center, which was established by the US Congress as an independent non-profit organisation and receives most of its funding from the US government. Indeed, despite the US not officially being a member (with its Pacific territories and the State of Hawai’i as exceptions), the PICL is increasingly referred to as a site of “dialogue with US officials and experts”. This week’s meeting may provide another opportunity for the US to woo the region, building on Harris’ July speech.

The US has recently ramped up its interest in the Pacific, sparked by accusations of overlooking the region since the end of the Cold War. Earlier this year, the US announced that it would re-establish a diplomatic mission in the Solomon Islands capital Honiara after a 29-year absence. At the same time, the US is negotiating the renewal of its Compacts of Free Association with Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia. US President Joe Biden has announced that he will meet with Pacific leaders at the end of this month in Washington DC.

Key issues on the agenda

Given both China and the US’ interest in the region, geopolitical competition will be on the agenda for Pacific leaders this week. While discussions will remain behind closed doors, these will likely be robust, although much will depend on which leaders attend the meeting. Given how closely the PICL is associated with the US, the decision by leaders to attend will send a signal in itself.

It will be of particular interest whether the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogavare, attends the meeting. The Solomon Islands government recently put a moratorium on port visits from military vessels (except from Australia and New Zealand, as well as fisheries compliance vessels), which included blocking the entry of a US vessel — an unprecedented move, particularly as the vessel was engaged in maritime surveillance. The Solomon Islands also hosts the Forum Fisheries Agency, which plays a key role in coordinating maritime surveillance, including by partners such as the US.

Other issues on the agenda are climate change, and the Pacific Island diaspora in the US, Australia, and New Zealand. This week’s meeting, and President Biden’s meeting with Pacific leaders, will both be key signals for how Pacific states are responding to the US’ sudden renewed interest in the region.