WASHINGTON — The White House announced Thursday that it intends to invest $810 million in new aid for the Pacific Island region as part of a renewed effort to combat China’s influence and rebuild decades-old diplomatic relationships that have been strained by American abuse and neglect.

The funds were part of an ambitious Pacific strategy outlined by the Biden administration during the first U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit, which brought together leaders from a dozen island nations, including Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Tuvalu.

A Hawaii congressman who participated in the summit praised the gathering, saying it was a positive step after the U.S. has lost touch with the region. The years of neglect have resulted in growing divisions between the various governments involved.

“We made mistakes,” Rep. Ed Case said. “We let our guard down in the Pacific and felt that the relationships we had there were sufficient and that together with our partners like Australia, New Zealand and Japan we had it covered. We didn’t.”

President Joe Biden speaks during the first U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit at the State Department in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022. Biden is hosting Pacific Island leaders for a two-day summit as the U.S. looks to counter China's military and economic influence in the region. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
President Joe Biden speaks during the first U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit at the State Department in Washington. AP Photo/Susan Walsh/2022

President Joe Biden’s Pacific Partnership Strategy — billed as the first of its kind — seeks to address critical issues in the region, from climate change and illegal fishing to wildlife trafficking and the removal of unexploded ordnance from World War II that can still maim and kill those unfortunate enough to encounter it.

A key element of the U.S. strategy includes renewing agreements with the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands. The three nations give the U.S. strategic military rights in and around the islands in exchange for financial assistance.

The agreements, known as the Compacts of Free Association, are set to expire within the next two years and include provisions that send millions of dollars to Hawaii each year to help pay for health care and education costs of immigrants living in the state.

Biden hosted a dinner at the White House for the Pacific Island dignitaries participating in the summit, where the menu included Barolo-braised short ribs, red onion confit and honey cinnamon ice cream.

During a speech, the president played up longstanding U.S. ties with the region and highlighted the fact that the U.S. plans to remain engaged in the region for the long term, whether it’s addressing security concerns, rebuilding the global economy in the wake of Covid-19 or solving the climate crisis.

“A great deal of the history of our world is going to be written in the Indo-Pacific over the coming years and decades,” Biden said. “And the Pacific Islands are a critical voice in shaping that future.”

Climate Change Tops The Agenda

According to the White House, the U.S. has spent more than $1.5 billion to support the Pacific Island region over the past decade.

The new money announced this week includes $600 million over the next 10 years for economic assistance associated with the South Pacific Tuna Treaty, an agreement that allows U.S. purse seine vessels to fish in the exclusive economic zones of 16 Pacific Island countries.

Millions more have been pledged for a wide range of activities, from developing fellowships in conjunction with the University of the South Pacific at “premier universities” such as the University of Hawaii and University of California Santa Barbara, to beefing up law enforcement through increased training for the U.S. Coast Guard.

There’s $15 million for climate adaptation and resilience projects and another $3.25 million for Fiji, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu to combat wildlife trafficking. More than $2 million was pledged to help Palau and the Solomon Islands find and remove unexploded ordinance that was left behind during World War II.

The White House said it is also exploring its options to help Kiribati and the Marshall Islands with the removal of unexploded ordnance.

East-West Center President Suzanne Puanani Vares-Lum, left, speaks at the U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit with Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the State Department in Washington on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
East-West Center President Suzanne Vares-Lum, right, speaks at the U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit with Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the State Department in Washington. AP Photo/Kevin Wolf/2022

Much of the money, including funds dedicated to climate and weather tracking, will be contingent on congressional approval, according to a White House fact sheet.

“To me, the purpose of this summit was to show that we are a Pacific nation,” East-West Center President Suzanne Vares-Lum said. “To have Washington, D.C., spend this much time on the Pacific is super exciting, and now it’s actually tangible. They’re not just saying it, they’re doing it. They’re actually laying money on the table.”

Vares-Lum traveled from Hawaii to Washington to participate in the summit, which comes on the heels of a similar gathering in Honolulu earlier in the month.

She delivered remarks at a State Department luncheon on Wednesday. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also said the island nations had agreed to a “declaration of partnership … that shows that we have a shared vision for the future and a determination to build that future together.”

While much of the outside discussion has centered on how the U.S. is working to counter China’s encroachment into the region, many of the talks inside, Vares-Lum said, focused on improving the lives of islanders, whether it’s through climate adaptation or seeking ways to better protect fish stocks in their waters.

To island nations, she said, the threats to their existence go beyond geopolitics and picking sides. During a forum in Honolulu earlier this month, several Pacific Island leaders said that aid for climate change mitigation and adaptation was at the top of their list.

“I feel like what the Pacific Islands are saying is that they never want to be in a position to have to choose,” she said.

An Opening For China

The summit included leaders or other high-level representatives from Fiji, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, the Cook Islands, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Nauru. Australia, New Zealand and the secretary-general of the Pacific Island Forum also sent observers, according to the White House.

Pacific Island leaders met with dozens of officials, including lawmakers, over a packed two days. Among them were House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Special Climate Envoy John Kerry and Biden himself during an evening gala at the White House.

The White House did not provide opportunities for the media to speak with individual Pacific Island leaders and attempts to interview them were unsuccessful.

Case was among those who met with Pacific Island leaders during a closed-door gathering Thursday at the U.S. Capitol that included lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.

“A great deal of the history of our world is going to be written in the Indo-Pacific over the coming years and decades.” — President Joe Biden

It was a positive experience that helped reinforce that Congress, too, is committed to rebuilding the U.S. relationship with Pacific Island nations and has been working to strengthen those bonds in the region, he said.

Case has been one of the most vocal proponents of bolstering the U.S. presence in the Pacific. He said he became concerned that the country was not appropriately committed to the region when he was elected in 2018 to represent Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District.

The U.S. left a dearth of diplomacy in the Pacific, he said, by closing consulates, leaving ambassadorships unfilled and pulling out the Peace Corps.

“The Pacific Islands felt that and China felt that as well,” Case said. “China saw an opening and went out there to exploit it.”

This week’s summit is a good step in repairing the damage that’s been caused during the decades of U.S. complacency in the region, he said. While it will take time and cooperation from Congress to execute the full strategy coming out of the White House, he called it a “strong fabric” that can be used to mend what’s been broken.

Congressman Ed Case FAA Whistleblower Helicopters Press Conference
Hawaii Congressman Ed Case has been pushing for more U.S. engagement in the Pacific. Kuʻu Kauanoe/ Civil Beat/2020

For example, the U.S. wants to establish new embassies in the Solomon Islands, Kiribati and Tonga.

“I don’t think one could say honestly that all is well,” Case said. “When you disengage from a critical region for 20 years and then you recommit to a reengagement, that doesn’t just happen overnight.”

‘Insufficient’ Assistance

The summit, which kicked off Wednesday, was not without controversy.

In the days leading up to the event, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare signaled that his country would not sign a joint declaration supporting the proposed U.S. engagement in the region.

The revelation, which came via leaked documents, was seen as yet another sign that China was making inroads in the region, a concern that officials in Washington were already worried about after the country signed a security agreement with Beijing earlier in the year.

A further sign of rocky relations in the region came when the Marshall Islands suspended COFA negotiations over concerns that the U.S. wasn’t properly addressing its nuclear legacy in the islands.

That decision was followed by a letter sent Monday from the ambassadors of Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia to Kurt Campbell, deputy assistant to the president and coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs on the National Security Council.

In short, they said the economic assistance being offered by the U.S. in negotiations was “insufficient,” and that COFA negotiations could stall if more efforts weren’t made to address their concerns.

“It is worth emphasizing that the United States of America has been, is, and will continue to be our first and foremost ally,” the ambassadors wrote.

“Our remarks may come across as heated, but the primary point is that this is our hottest and most important topic. We are unable to solve climate change, and unable to provide for our citizens’ education and health needs, unless and until these negotiations conclude, and conclude in such a manner that genuinely meet our development needs.”

Michael Walsh is an affiliate researcher at the Center for Australian, New Zealand, and Pacific Studies at Georgetown.

He said the leaked documents and public statements, particularly those pertaining to COFA negotiations, highlight potential problems for the U.S. in terms of coming to an agreement with three of its closest allies in the region.

There’s clearly been a shift in bargaining tactics, he said, which could hint at a potential impasse in negotiations or a “hard bargain” to squeeze more money out of the U.S. when there was the maximum potential to gain leverage.

“This is an issue that’s been rolling along for some time, and now it’s in the public domain so everyone’s going to have to deal with the consequences,” Walsh said. “And it was the White House that created the perfect platform for this to happen by hosting this major regional summit right in the middle of the negotiations.”

Brian Harding, a senior expert in Southeast Asia and the Pacific at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., said the White House summit was a clear reaction to China’s incursions in the region.

Harding described the event as “highly symbolic” and a means for the Biden administration to make up for lost time in the region.

“It’s great that the summit is taking place, and I think ultimately U.S. officials and Pacific Island leaders are going to walk away feeling good about it,” Harding said. “But the question remains: Will the United States continue to be engaged in a serious and sustainable way and will it make good on the promises it made?”

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