Essay from NBR Special Report no. 104
What Can the United States Do Better in the Pacific?
This is the introduction to the NBR report “Charting a New Course for the Pacific Islands: Strategic Pathways for U.S.-Micronesia Engagement.”
The United States is at risk of overpromising and underdelivering in the Pacific Islands. To succeed in building a “strong U.S.-Pacific Islands partnership” empowered by Pacific Islanders, the United States will need to do more than maintain its presence. In the last year alone, the flurry of activity and U.S. policy announcements has been frenetic. While the United States’ desire to re-engage is clear, the prospects for effective implementation are far less so. This introductory essay provides a framework for thinking about the Pacific Islands for audiences based in the United States and discusses two sets of concepts that should help guide U.S. policy. The first is the “three C’s”—climate, credibility, and commitment—and is intended to help U.S. policymakers keep Pacific Island concerns centered. The second set of concepts, which will be expounded on in the conclusion, is the “three A’s”—acknowledge, appreciate, and actively coordinate. Both sets of concepts provide ideas for how U.S. engagement should proceed in the region.
The main problem, as expressed by U.S. policy, is the role of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Oceania. China’s decades-long engagement in the Pacific Islands has culminated in events that have garnered the attention and concern of the United States and its allies. One of the most salient of these events has been the security agreement between the PRC and Solomon Islands in 2022. Anna Powles and Jose Sousa-Santos describe how the announcement of this agreement “raised alarm in Canberra, Washington, and Wellington, eliciting swift visits by U.S. Indo Pacific Coordinator, Dr. Kurt Campbell, to Solomon Islands in April, a discreet visit by a New Zealand foreign affairs official also to the Solomon Islands, and Australian Foreign Minister Senator Penny Wong, four days after the Australian elections, to Fiji in May.” However, other events in 2022, such as China’s proposal to create the China–Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision, have heightened concerns among Pacific Island leaders and external partners. For example, the president of the Federated States of Micronesia David Panuelo argued that any “predetermined joint communique” should not be accepted by Pacific leaders, noting that the impact of “Chinese control over our communications infrastructure, our ocean territory and the resources within them, and our security space, aside from the impacts on our sovereignty, is that it increases the chance of China getting into conflict with Australia, Japan, the United States, and New Zealand.” For Pacific Island leaders, the concern is not so much about who is “winning” in the Pacific but about how strategic competition is disrupting regional unity.
The purpose of this introduction is to raise awareness of Pacific Island realities for U.S. policymakers unfamiliar with the region, highlight critical concerns for those devising policy related to the Pacific Islands, and frame the contributions to this report. It draws heavily on the Pacific Islands Strategic Dialogue convened by the National Bureau of Asian Research in May 2022 in Tamuning, Guam, with support from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency Strategic Trends Research Initiative and with partnership with the University of Guam. That event featured 25 officials, regional experts, practitioners, and scholars representing a diverse set of countries, territories, and freely associated states from Micronesia and beyond. Central questions posed to dialogue participants included what security concerns exist among governments and citizens in Micronesia, whether those concerns align with U.S. national security interests, and how Micronesian governments are dealing with the consequences of strategic competition. Many of the discussions in that dialogue highlighted unique Micronesian perspectives. However, some viewpoints were reflective of larger debates among Pacific Island countries in Melanesia and Polynesia.
Micronesian representatives and regional experts raised a myriad of issues during the dialogue, including climate change, food security, health, land rights, territorial integrity, drug and human trafficking, illegal fishing, cybersecurity, and political stability. Climate change is the most salient security concern, and there is clear recognition that, over the long term, rising sea levels and other climate change impacts will affect many other issues. Despite strong consensus on the risks associated with climate change, which are mirrored across the Pacific Islands and in critical documents from regional organizations, views on other issues are not monolithic. For the United States to respond to these varied concerns in a more proactive manner, the U.S. government will need to harness expertise, resources, and authority from across agencies and prioritize how it implements those programs. In particular, one of the central themes that emerged from this dialogue was the lack of trust in the United States and the concern that U.S. policy is too reactive.
The Three C’s: Climate, Credibility, and Commitment
Like representatives from the broader Pacific, representatives attending the Pacific Islands Strategic Dialogue from throughout Micronesia emphasized the importance of efforts to address climate change and described how climate change is linked to food security, economic development, health outcomes, political instability, and the sustainability of the islands themselves and thus their sovereign territory. For Pacific Island leaders, the clear consensus that climate change is the most salient security concern has been articulated in numerous announcements, including the Boe Declaration on Regional Security, the Boe Declaration Action Plan, and the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, as well as in speeches and articles by representatives of the Pacific Islands Forum. Policy documents from the United States have begun to reflect the language of the Pacific region. For example, the Pacific Partnership Strategy calls for the sustainable development of the “Blue Pacific environment.” However, using the Blue Pacific rhetoric without also following through on the requisite actions carries risks, as empty promises that do not fully embody the needs for climate change action will likely be seen as pandering rather than genuine progress.
Credibility means many things, but in the Pacific there are two crucial concepts for establishing credibility: presence and trust. The former is much easier to realize than the latter. In Micronesia, the United States is both literally and figuratively present, with U.S. territories in the North Pacific—Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands—and through Compact of Free Association (COFA) agreements with the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau. U.S. presence in the territories is somewhat more permanent than those arrangements with COFA states, but both require consent for the relationship to work effectively. For the COFA states, consent is tied to specific timelines and thus is always based on the individual choices of those nations. In short, countries have choices. Two of the COFA agreements, with the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, will expire in 2023 if not renewed, although progress seems to have been made through recent memoranda of understanding. Long-term presence across Micronesia will require a credible commitment, additional resources, and consistent actions to ensure partnership.
Trust is more complicated than presence and will take more effort from the United States to rebuild. International relations scholars note that cooperation among countries requires a certain degree of trust, but studies of trust have generally focused on Cold War interactions between major powers. Far less scholarship exists on how trust operates in heavily unbalanced relationships, which would more accurately reflect relations between the United States and individual Pacific Island countries. Moreover, we must also understand how trust operates in multilateral settings, which informs analysis of relations between the United States and regional organizations, such as the Pacific Islands Forum. Thus, the United States will need to consider trust in the context of interpersonal relationships, which are critical in Pacific communities. It is important to recognize that trust is not an emotion but rather “a cognitive assessment.” In international relations theory based on iterative games, individual countries can make assessments about another country’s trustworthiness. Trust in the context of credibility may be defined as “choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another’s person’s actions.” Pacific Island governments that talk about trust with external partners have noted that climate change goals, regional unity, and the sovereignty of the “Pacific way” are becoming vulnerable to actions made by external powers in the name of strategic competition.
Specific to climate change vulnerabilities, Dame Meg Taylor, who was formerly secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum, and Soli Middleby note this dilemma and argue that “Western nations have been unable to take the necessary action on mitigation domestically,” nor have countries such as the United States supported the region’s Pacific Resilience Facility. Clear actions at home and effective policies abroad are necessary to express a comprehensive commitment to climate change. Words are not enough, and words without action may generate the potential for an enduring credibility problem. The United States may be better served by underpromising and overdelivering rather than creating expectations that could be left unfulfilled. Rhetoric without the requisite action will fail.
Commitment is more than simply credibility or presence. It is the long-term plan for engagement that articulates how and why actions are taken and includes building personal, organizational, and other ties with the region. Credibility needs to be established to show good faith, but it is only one component in a series of steps that must be taken and reinforced. This will not be easy for the United States, which continues to have global commitments. Pacific Island leaders are looking to the United States to live up to its climate change and other commitments. However, those same leaders also recognize that the climate change crisis is such an existential threat to the livelihoods and security of Pacific people that relying on only one partner or limiting external partners is foolhardy.
The Three A’s: Acknowledge, Appreciate, and Actively Coordinate
To preview the report and the policy options discussed in the conclusion, a second set of concepts worth considering is the “three A’s”: acknowledge, appreciate, and actively coordinate. On the surface, each of these concepts is simple, but simplicity does not imply effortlessness. U.S. policymakers have a myriad of global concerns, and slowing down enough to acknowledge and appreciate regional concerns will require empathy and respect for local viewpoints. Active coordination should occur once common ground is established and will almost surely be more time-consuming than some may anticipate. Acknowledgment means having conversations that show nuanced understanding of individual countries’ interests while simultaneously understanding the importance of regional unity. Appreciating the concerns of Pacific Island country leaders is not simply agreeing with them or using their rhetoric. Reading key documents from the Pacific Islands Forum, such as the Boe Declaration and the 2050 Blue Pacific Strategy, is necessary for foreign officials, but using the language of the Blue Pacific without fully appreciating the seriousness of these concerns will come across as insincere.
Acknowledgment and appreciation are both trust-based, long-term goals for the relationship and will not be achieved immediately. Patience will be necessary for U.S. policymakers. Active coordination is knowing when to act and, even more importantly, when not to act due to the enormous difference in capacity between host nations and the United States. U.S. officials should take extra care to ensure that Pacific voices are not drowned out by the volume, size, or stature of U.S. programs. The Partners in the Blue Pacific initiative holds great promise, but appropriate implementation will be a challenge.
The first two essays of the report outline key issues from a Micronesian perspective. First, Kenneth Gofigan Kuper at the University of Guam describes “the turbulent waters of a violent geography” and the unique risks for U.S. territories in Micronesia. In particular, he addresses how strategic competition between the United States and China exacerbates risks of conflict for Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands because these territories are on the front line of U.S. military presence in the Pacific. In describing this reality, Kuper makes important contributions to international relations scholarship about political status, identity, and representation. For Pacific Islanders, the existential risks are present now, not in some distant future. Next, Alan Tidwell, director of the Center for Australia, New Zealand, and Pacific Studies at Georgetown University, describes how the “twin transnational threats” of climate change and Covid-19 have already had significant impacts in Micronesia and have the potential to create longer-term societal cleavages that could decrease health and food security in the region.
The third essay of this report shifts from identifying the challenges to thinking about lessons for the future and designing policies that are mutually beneficial. Henrietta McNeill, at the Australian National University, and Joanne Wallis, at the University of Adelaide, discuss engagement in Micronesia by considering lessons learned from key regional partners Australia and New Zealand. By examining both the successes and failures of Australia’s and New Zealand’s recent policies in the broader Pacific, the United States can benefit from their experiences. In particular, McNeill and Wallis encourage the United States to be present in Micronesia, listen, coordinate, focus on the people, and be consistent. All these recommendations sound simple, but require time, attention, and commitment.
In Micronesia and the broader Pacific Islands, there are many challenges. Despite those challenges, there are also many opportunities. The United States has the potential to alter climate change trajectories, build effective relationships with countries and territories in the region, and bolster regional unity. However, doing so will not be easy. The United States has global commitments and is often pulled in a multitude of directions, which in the past has led to benign neglect of the Pacific Islands region. Long-term commitment and proactive, tailored, and coordinated policies will be necessary for the U.S. government to produce mutually beneficial outcomes for individuals, communities, and the broader region. Tailored, long-term commitments will require focus and attention and a clear recognition of the importance of Pacific Island countries. Now is the time for the many promises that the United States made in 2022 to be implemented and become reality.
April A. Herlevi is a Nonresident Fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research and Senior Research Scientist in the China and Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Division at CNA. Her views are her own.
 On June 25, 2022, the Partners in the Blue Pacific coordination mechanism was announced. See “Joint Statement on the Announcement of the Partners in the Blue Pacific Initiative,” Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Australia), June 25, 2022, https://www.dfat.gov.au/news/media-release/joint-statement-announcement-partners-blue-pacific-initiative. The partner countries met on September 22 on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, with U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken hosting twelve Pacific Island countries as well as a variety of external partners to discuss this new initiative. See “Joint Statement on Partners in the Blue Pacific Foreign Ministers Meeting,” U.S. Department of State, September 22, 2022, https://www.state.gov/joint-statement-on-partners-in-the-blue-pacific-foreign-ministers-meeting. Earlier in September, the White House hosted the first-ever U.S.–Pacific Island Country Summit. See “Statement by Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on the First U.S.–Pacific Island Country Summit,” White House, September 2, 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/09/02/statement-by-press-secretary-karine-jean-pierre-on-the-first-u-s-pacific-island-country-summit. The summit culminated with the release of the U.S. Pacific Partnership Strategy and a joint declaration. See White House, Pacific Partnership Strategy of the United States; and White House, “Declaration on U.S.-Pacific Partnership,” September 29, 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/09/29/declaration-on-u-s-pacific-partnership.
 “PM Sogavare: Not a Secret Deal but a Sovereign Issue,” Office of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (Solomon Islands), April 1, 2022, https://solomons.gov.sb/pm-sogavare-not-a-secret-deal-but-a-sovereign-issue; and “Wang Yi on China–Solomon Islands Bilateral Security Cooperation,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), June 3, 2022, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/zxxx_662805/202206/t20220603_10698478.html.
 Anna Powles and Jose Sousa-Santos, “Strengthening Collective Security Approaches in the Pacific,” in Strategic Competition and Security Cooperation in the Blue Pacific, ed. Deon Canyon (Honolulu: Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, 2022), 173.
 Ministry of Foreign Affairs (PRC), “China’s Position Paper on Mutual Respect and Common Development with Pacific Island Countries,” May 30, 2022, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/zxxx_662805/202205/t20220531_10694923.html.
 Kirsty Needham, “China Seeks Pacific Islands Policing, Security Cooperation–Document,” Reuters, May 25, 2022, https://www.gmanetwork.com/news/topstories/world/832887/china-seeks-pacific-islands-policing-security-cooperation-document/story.
 “2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent,” Pacific Islands Forum, 2022, https://www.forumsec.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/PIFS-2050-Strategy-Blue-Pacific-Continent-WEB-5Aug2022.pdf; “Boe Declaration Action Plan,” Pacific Islands Forum, 2019, https://www.forumsec.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/BOE-document-Action-Plan.pdf; and “Boe Declaration on Regional Security,” Pacific Islands Forum, 2018, https://www.forumsec.org/2018/09/05/boe-declaration-on-regional-security.
 “The United States of America and the Republic of the Marshall Islands Sign Memorandum of Understanding,” U.S. Department of State, January 12, 2023, https://www.state.gov/the-united-states-of-america-and-the-republic-of-the-marshall-islands-sign-memorandum-of-understanding.
 Andrew Kydd argues that trust and mistrust are critical causal mechanisms in international relations and help explain when countries will reciprocate or exploit cooperation. Theoretically, this was an important and necessary advancement in international relations thinking, but the empirical analysis that has grown out of that insight has primarily been focused on the Cold War and interactions between major powers. See Andrew Kydd, Trust and Mistrust in International Relations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); and Andrew Kydd, “Trust, Reassurance, and Cooperation,” International Organization 54, no. 2 (2000): 325–57.
 For one excellent exception that focuses explicitly on unbalanced relationships as a structural factor in how two states interact, see Brantly Womack, China and Vietnam: The Politics of Asymmetry (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
 Meg Taylor DBE and Soli Middleby, “More of the Same Is Not the Answer to Building Influence in the Pacific,” 9DASHLINE, October 3, 2022, https;//www.9dashline.com/article/more-of-the-same-is-not-the-answer-to-building-influence-in-the-pacific.