U.S. Commits To Greater Pacific Engagement

The United States has unveiled its largest commitment to the Pacific Region in decades, in an effort to re-establish its diplomatic influence in the area. The announcement was made by Vice President Kamala Harris, in an address to the Pacific Islands Forum. Harris pledged that the U.S. would triple its aid, establish embassies in the island nations of Kiribati and Tonga, and re-deploy the Peace Corps to the region. Harris also outlined the development of a “National Strategy on the Pacific Islands” which will seek to craft a “whole-of-government” approach to the Pacific.

The announcement comes just weeks after Deputy Australian Prime Minister Richard Marles warned that the U.S. needed to increase its presence in the Pacific to prevent “a catastrophic failure of deterrence.” Underlining the significance of Harris’s address, Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. argued that the speech “really show[ed] the U.S. are back and want to play an active role.” Speaking to the recent tensions regarding great power competition in the region, Dr. Wesley Morgan, a researcher at the Climate Council, told the Guardian, “it’s very clear that the geo-strategic competition is the backdrop to this Pacific Islands Forum in ways it never has been before.”

The Summit has been held amid a period of heightened diplomatic interest in the region, after the unexpected announcement of a security deal between China and the Solomon Islands and a failed attempt by China to sign a similar deal with ten Pacific nations. The sizeable expansion of United States investment in the area reflects the Biden administration’s attempt to centre its strategic influence on Asia and the Indo-Pacific. However, some have raised concerns that growing competition between Beijing and Washington will undermine genuine attempts to support Pacific economies and address the debilitating threat of climate change in the region. 

In her address, Harris conceded that “in recent years, the Pacific Islands may not have received the diplomatic attention and support that [they] deserved,” acknowledging a regional frustration with an absence of US engagement, particularly on climate and infrastructure development. The Vice President committed to “significantly deepen our engagement in the Pacific Islands,” describing the renewed investment as a “new chapter in our partnership.”

One figure inside the Biden administration, described as a senior official by the Washington Post, explained, “we are expanding our footprint and making sure we have the people and apparatus in place to deepen our cooperation on a day-to-day basis and to deliver concrete results.”

The Forum itself has faced internal challenges, following the unexpected withdrawal of Kiribati days before it commenced, and spectral tensions from the 2019 meeting which saw tensions emerge between Australia and other nations over climate policy. 

U.S. involvement within the Pacific can advance the causes of peace by ensuring greater regional stability, providing necessary economic stimulus and by mitigating the consequences of climate change. Such involvement must reflect the aspirations of Pacific peoples, focus on regional needs and emphasise greater diplomatic engagement with regional governments. And while geostrategic competition – as an extension of antagonism between the United States and China – presents risks to regional stability, cooperation within the Pacific could prove a pathway to better relationships between the two nations. 

Harris’s announcement reflects a growing consensus on the strategic importance of the region and reflects the importance of engaging regional stakeholders to address regional challenges. Ongoing cooperation on critical economic, ecological and security issues will remain vital to providing lasting peace throughout the Pacific.