What to expect from Biden’s summit with Pacific island leaders

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By Richard Herr

When the White House announced that President Joe Biden will host U.S – Pacific Island Country Summit on 28–29 September, it noted that it’s the ‘first ever’ such meeting. This both focused attention on the importance the U.S attaches to repositioning its place in the Pacific island region and gave a Johnny-come-lately look for a country that has been a power in the region for more than 150 years.

Along with Australia’s ‘Pacific step-up’, New Zealand’s ‘Pacific reset’ and the UK’s ‘Pacific uplift’, the summit is intended to show that Washington has recognised the need to drastically renovate relations with the Pacific islands to respond to the more muscular influence of China in the region under President Xi Jinping.

The road to the White House began with the 2019 ‘Pacific pledge’, which significantly elevated U.S policy on, and financing for, the region, but these efforts were embedded in the broader strategic context of an Indo-Pacific strategy with China as its focus.

The novelty of Biden’s summit, however, contrasts with the way other states have demonstrated their interest in the region at the highest level.

Australia and New Zealand, of course, have had annual summits with the regional leadership through the Pacific Islands Forum since 1971.

Other states have also had meetings to cement closer relations with the Pacific islands. Japan has held triennial iterations of its Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting since 1997. There have been five France–Oceania summits since 2002. The China – Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum has met three times since it was launched in 2006.

Adding to the apparent tardiness of the Biden summit, the US has had a recurrent opportunity for more than 40 years to meet with the regional heads of government.

The Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders has offered 12 occasions for a US-based summit since it was founded by Fiji’s Prime Minister Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and Hawaii Governor George Ariyosh in 1980. The secretariat for the conference is the Pacific Islands Development Program located in the East–West Centre at the University of Hawaii.

The most recent meeting of the conference was held in Honolulu earlier this month. In addition to its role of giving direction to the Pacific Islands Development Program, it served to rehearse the key issues to bring to the White House summit. The islands’ agenda was further workshopped by leaders’ conference participants when they met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last week.

The most important of these meetings was the one convened by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken of the Partners in the Blue Pacific initiative launched a few months ago by the U.S, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the UK. Like legislative underpinnings for the U.S policy change (the BLUE Pacific Act), the name for this informal association seeks to identify with the Pacific Islands Forum’s 2050 strategy for the Blue Pacific continent.

The meeting included all the Pacific Islands Forum members then in New York as well as Canada, Germany, India and South Korea. Discussions centred on ways to align the U.S-led initiative with the forum’s strategy, addressing specific projects in areas such humanitarian risk management and support for accessing climate-change financing. (Canada subsequently announced that it would join the Partners in the Blue Pacific and Germany is expected to follow.)

Perhaps encouraged by the positive developments in Australia and the US regarding the region’s climate-change-mitigation demands, the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu used their time on the global stage to push a proposal to address adaptation needs.

Building on the Pacific Islands Forum’s 2021 declaration on the need to protect maritime boundaries in the face of rising sea levels, Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Kausea Natano and the Marshall Islands’ President David Kabua unveiled a ‘rising nations initiative’.

The island states will expect the White House summit to attract diplomatic and financial support for a proposed global partnership that aims to preserve the sovereignty, heritage and rights of Pacific islanders through practical measures to adapt to climate change.

Broader geopolitical and security concerns, including those of the Pacific pledge, were also canvassed during the UN week. The Quad countries of Australia, India, Japan and the US held a foreign ministers’ meeting which reaffirmed a commitment to the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ concept as well as cooperation on food and energy security and climate change.

At the same time, but half a world away, Exercise Cartwheel was taking place in Fiji’s Nausori Highlands. This tactical field training exercise was unrelated to, but somewhat reflective of, the Quad’s rationale and membership of the Partners in the Blue Pacific. Led by Fiji and the U.S, the exercise also included defence personnel from Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

Exercise Cartwheel stands as a practical demonstration of the hopes the Biden summit holds for closer security ties with the region as against the constraints for achieving that directly. Although neither was included, the only other Pacific defence forces that might have participated in the exercise were those of Papua New Guinea and Tonga.

This does much to explain why the White House agenda will be focused on meeting the region’s security objectives as expressed in the Pacific Islands Forum’s Boe Declaration and 2050 Blue Pacific strategy.

The Biden administration will have two factors going in its favour for aligning U.S policy with the Blue Pacific strategy. Rejoining the Paris agreement on climate change brought the Biden administration credibility by removing a significant Donald Trump–era irritation.

Second, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has highlighted the weakness of the UN’s collective security guarantees against aggression. Beijing’s unwillingness to condemn the invasion has reinforced to some extent some emergent regional apprehensions over China.

Given all the high-level preparations and agenda pretesting for the White House summit, the Biden administration will be hoping that the meeting smoothly delivers a regional seal of approval for Washington’s new policy directions in the Pacific islands.

Nevertheless, there are issues that could derail the expected lovefest. The Partners in the Blue Pacific initiative is investing heavily in a regional architecture that remains fractured. While the US doesn’t have a direct role in the Pacific Islands Forum, it does have a dominant place in Micronesian subregional affairs.

The Marshall Islands threw a late pre-summit spanner into the ongoing negotiations with America’s three Micronesian allies—the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshalls and Palau—to renew their compacts of free association with the US. Strains within the forum have revolved around the Micronesian subregion for nearly two years. Washington needs the three states to lend a positive voice to its regional initiative….PACNEWS

Richard Herr is academic director of the parliamentary law course at the University of Tasmania and a former honorary director and adjunct professorial fellow in the Centre for International and Regional Affairs at the University of Fiji. He was awarded an AusAID Peacebuilder award in 2002 for work in Solomon Islands

SOURCE: THE STRATEGIST/PACNEWS