US funding delays hurt the Pacific – but there are bigger worries | Terence Wesley-Smith and Gerard Finin

A delay by the US in providing crucial funding to Pacific Island nations is fuelling concern in the region – but questions about the competing visions held by the US and regional leaders are even more pressing.

The funding is part of longstanding agreements the US has with three nations in the north Pacific, the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the Marshall Islands and Palau. The agreements, known as the Compacts of Free Association (Cofa), provide a range of assistance to these nations, including visa-free entry to the US, grant assistance, trust fund contributions, and support for government services including the US postal service. In exchange, the US gets exclusive military access to large parts of the north Pacific.

The renegotiated Cofa financial provisions were agreed to in 2023, yet so far the US hasn’t delivered on its promise to pay. That has prompted frustration and rising anxiety among the leaders. Earlier this month, Palau’s president Surangel Whipps Jr. warned in a letter to Congress “every day it is not approved plays into the hands” of China.

Despite the real need for Cofa funds, as well as delays in support for other components of president Joe Biden’s Pacific Islands Partnership Strategy, congressional dysfunction pales in comparison to broader concerns. Pacific leaders want to collaborate with the US – but they are increasingly worried that what Washington is working towards is at odds with their own long-term objectives.

There are growing concerns about climate change, rising militarisation, and inadequate consultation on major initiatives – all of which risk harming US-Pacific engagement. US initiatives ultimately aim to curb China’s geopolitical ambitions, while Pacific leaders have a different focus – namely, the 2050 “Blue Pacific” strategy with its emphasis on self-determination, peaceful development and, most importantly, addressing climate change.

The US and the Pacific region both see tackling the climate crisis as high priority. However, island leaders have demanded much more emphasis on mitigation. They have expressed frustration that the recent Cop28 meeting failed to approve more aggressive fossil fuel phase-out —implicating both the US and China as major polluters, as well as coal-producing Australia, a key member of the Pacific Islands Forum.

Meanwhile, programs related to the security dimensions of America’s Pacific strategy have moved ahead apace, expanding US military capabilities in Guam, the Marshall Islands, FSM and Palau, as well as yielding new training arrangements with other island countries. These military developments undermine the Blue Pacific strategy’s central emphasis on peaceful development.

The comprehensive US-Papua New Guinea (PNG) Defense Cooperation Agreement signed in May 2023 met with local concerns that it compromised PNG sovereignty. The important Aukus agreement between the US, Australia, and the United Kingdom to station nuclear powered submarines in Australia is regarded as highly problematic because it appears to violate the terms of the 1986 South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, and was negotiated without consultation with Pacific leaders.

Other initiatives have also proceeded without due respect for what Samoan prime minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa calls the “integrity of Pacific leadership.” The Quad brings Japan, Australia, India and the US together to promote a “free and open Indo-Pacific” without involving the Pacific custodians of the largest ocean involved. Similarly, the US-led Partners in the Blue Pacific program coordinates the efforts of aid donors in the absence of the intended recipients.

Shortcomings in Washington’s Pacific strategy do not necessarily pave the way for China’s regional ambitions, as Whipps and others have claimed. Nauru’s decision in January to resume diplomatic relations with Beijing after many years of alliance with Taiwan seemingly had more to do with economic advantage than western neglect. Although still significant, China’s aid to the Pacific Islands region is declining, and Beijing has experienced its own setbacks, particularly with failed efforts to develop a Pacific-wide security pact.

In any event, such zero-sum thinking about US-China competition is not widely shared by regional leaders. As Cook Islands prime minister Mark Brown has said, “We are not a region of competition, we are a region of cooperation.”

Pacific leaders are ambiguous about heightened geopolitical interest in Oceania, welcoming new opportunities to leverage support, while making clear their aversion to choosing sides as the competition for strategic advantage intensifies. According to former secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum Dame Meg Taylor, the key challenge for the Pacific is retaining control of the regional order in the face of competing external agendas.

In recent years the US has demonstrated its ability to cooperate with the Pacific Islands to mutual advantage. But the relationship is limited by the fact that, despite claiming a shared Blue Pacific vision, the overriding goal for Washington is continued regional supremacy. This means prioritising competition over cooperation, especially when it comes to China, and privileging military strategy over broader forms of human security. For Pacific leaders, the region should be free from military tension, where climate change is recognised as an existential threat, and where island leaders control the terms of engagement with external partners.

It will be difficult to overcome these fundamental differences unless, as Guam’s former US congressman Robert Underwood suggests, island leaders settle for being “pawns in a wider game … in which larger countries are actually making the decisions.”

In light of the increasing assertiveness of Pacific leaders in national and regional settings, that seems unlikely to occur.

  • Gerard Finin is former director of the Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center, and is now affiliated with the Georgetown University’s Center for Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Studies

The Guardian

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