Hawaii Rep. Ed Case called on the U.S. government Tuesday to prioritize relations with Pacific Island nations and help them battle illegal fishing, climate change and other problems. 

The Boosting Long-term U.S. Engagement in the Pacific Act, or BLUE Pacific Act, would increase America’s diplomatic presence, military ties and trade relations with the region while supporting local authorities in combating illegal fishing and addressing problems caused by climate change.

The bill is a pet project for Case, who traveled extensively to seek input about it from officials, diplomats and community leaders across the region.

“Over the past decade, the Pacific Islands have boldly pursued regionalism and cooperation to address the most pressing challenges they face,” Case said in a Tuesday press release. “As a Pacific nation, the United States can and must contribute to regional efforts to address these issues.”

Rep. Ed Case, shown here in December 2018, traveled to island nations across the Pacific talking to officials while crafting the bill. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Case initially introduced the bill last year, but it languished as the U.S. dealt with the catastrophic impact of the coronavirus pandemic and civil unrest.

Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young and California Democratic congressmen Ami Bera and Brad Sherman, all members of the Pacific Islands Caucus, joined Case as co-sponsors in reintroducing it.

“For years, we have regrettably drifted away from this part of the world with which we share longstanding historical ties and which serves as an essential link between our nation and the Indo-Pacific,” Bera said in a press release.  

The bill, which includes $1 billion in aid for island nations, has the backing of several Pacific nations and others with stakes in the region, including Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan. 

“Pacific Islands countries face a complex and growing array of challenges, including climate change and economic vulnerability. Those challenges have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, from which the Pacific Islands face a long recovery,” said New Zealand Ambassador Rosemary Banks.

“The BLUE Pacific Act would further enhance this cooperation and send an important signal about the United States’ enduring commitment to the region,” she added.

The U.S. has a complex relationship with the region. During World War II intense battles between American troops and Imperial Japan ravaged Pacific islands as countless civilians died in the crossfire. 

While many islanders benefited from American development initiatives in the years since, there was also a dark side. In the Marshall Islands the U.S. military tested nuclear weapons, which decades later continue to have ecological and health impacts.

Case and other members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation criticized cuts to U.S. government programs in the Pacific, particularly within nations that are members of the Compact of Free Association, arguing officials were taking American influence in the region for granted. 

In recent years China has sought to extend its influence in the region, investing in development projects as Chinese firms open up shop.

Micronesia’s President David Panuelo said the “Federated States of Micronesia is grateful for Congressman Case’s leadership in re-introducing this significant legislation.”

In 2019 both the Solomon Islands and Kiribati officially forged diplomatic ties with Beijing while severing diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

Taiwan also applauded the bill. “It is encouraging to see Congress taking a leadership role in highlighting the importance of this region,” Taiwanese diplomat Bi-khim Hsiao said.

The bill would step up the protection of fisheries, provide more assistance to local enforcement agencies and call for enhancing military ties and cooperation across the region.

It comes against the backdrop of concern about Chinese fishing fleets that are heavily subsidized by Beijing and accused of widespread illegal fishing. Some Chinese trawlers also double as members of the Chinese Navy’s “maritime militia.” 

The United States has historically been a strong player in the Pacific Islands, but Chinese investment has led to a competition for influence. Mark Edward Harris/Civil Beat

Last year Palau invited the U.S. military to set up a permanent base and this year has been stepping up cooperation with the Taiwanese and U.S. Coast Guards. The moves came after China turned the vice economically on the tiny island nation for refusing to cut ties with Taiwan, cutting off tourism and investment in response while sending fishing boats into Palau’s waters

“If there are any doubts as to the United States’ seriousness and close ties to the Pacific Islands, this legislation should remove them,” Palauan Ambassador Hersey Kyota said of the bill in a statement. “The legislation will help small islands, like Palau, not only to survive, but to thrive.”

The bill also calls on the U.S. government to find ways to reduce the effects of climate change while addressing the impacts already faced by Pacific Islanders and helping them protect their islands, which face overfishing and rising temperatures that ravage ecosystems.

The region is coping with increasingly intense storms and natural disasters. Last year University of Hawaii researchers found that low-lying atolls such as the Marshall Islands could be permanently lost to rising sea levels as early as 2080, displacing the entire nation if measures aren’t taken to adapt to climate change.

“This bill touches upon important issues the region is facing today,” Marshallese Ambassador Gerald Zackios said in the press release. “It would tremendously benefit all of us in the Pacific islands and secure the United States as the region’s premier partner.”

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