The U.S. government’s growing focus on the Pacific region is raising the profile of the East-West Center, the decades-old Honolulu-based educational institution that spent years defending its multimillion dollar congressional budget appropriation but now may be on the cusp of receiving a significant increase in federal funding.

It’s a promising shift for the nonprofit organization, which relies on Congress for about 80% of its estimated $25 million budget, according to EWC President Suzanne Vares-Lum.

Vares-Lum, a former Army major general, took the helm of the organization in January — becoming its first female president and the first to be of Native Hawaiian or even Pacific Islander descent.

President of the East-West Center Suzanne Vares Lum.
Suzanne Vares-Lum has been president of the East-West Center since January. During her tenure, the center introduced its first new strategic plan in 17 years. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Within months, the center had its first new strategic plan in 17 years, prioritizing climate change, good governance and the Pacific region. Vares-Lum hired a development chief to expand the center’s efforts to raise private funds. In September the center held the first in-person Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders since 2016, which Vares-Lum said drew more Pacific leaders than any such gathering since the 1980s.

Last month, Vares-Lum flew to Washington, D.C., to moderate a conversation with Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the first Pacific Islands Summit hosted by the Biden administration.

Funding Concerns

The East-West Center has for decades served as a place where Asia-Pacific students and leaders can meet, discuss current issues and participate in training and educational opportunities. But the combination of climate change and geopolitical tensions with China are underscoring the center’s role in strengthening U.S.-Pacific relationships.

I think now is the time where people are listening,” Vares-Lum said. “And I think we can maximize that opportunity, take advantage of that opportunity that people are listening and they must, because I don’t think climate change is waiting.”

A decade ago, the center battled efforts by the Obama administration to cut its funding. The Trump administration also tried to zero out budget appropriations, according to U.S. Rep. Ed Case. Case and his fellow Hawaii delegation members managed to keep congressional appropriations steady at $16.7 million annually for most of the last decade.

The East-West Center hosted representatives from more than a dozen Pacific island nations for the 2022 Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders in Honolulu. East-West Center/2022

That’s become easier under President Joe Biden and a Congress that’s more cognizant of the strategic importance of an active U.S. diplomatic presence in Oceania. Congressional appropriations have ticked upward over the last couple of years — growing from $16.7 million to $19.7 million each year for the last two years. 

“As the government is beginning the process of going back to the Pacific Islands after some decades of neglect, it makes sense that we would be trying to give the East-West Center the resources they need to grow in accordance with the role that we’re now attaching to the Pacific islands strategically,” said Alex Gray, former director for Oceania and Indo-Pacific security at the National Security Council and a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.

Now Congress is considering giving the organization more than $25 million in this year’s appropriations bill, a 25% increase.

“The bottom line with the East-West Center is that it’s far more critical today and into the next couple of decades with the geopolitical situation we face,” Case said Friday.

Inouye Was A Longtime Ally

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz has been impressed with Vares-Lum’s leadership and describes the center as “undergoing a renaissance.”

“It’s always been important to Hawaii and to the Asia-Pacific region,” he said Friday. “But with new leadership and a bit more focus, they are becoming an essential tool for the State Department to create a platform for peace and stability in the region.”

The Hawaii senator, who was first appointed to his seat in 2012 following the death of  Sen. Daniel Inouye, wasn’t always so confident in the center.

“We had some tough conversations towards the beginning because they talked a lot about funding for the center as if it was — as if they were entitled to it,” Schatz said. “And what I told them was that they had to, just like any other line of federal resources that comes to Hawaii, make the value proposition clear.”

Senator Brian Schatz gestures during a field hearing held at the East West Center Auditorium.
Sen. Brian Schatz gestures during a field hearing held at the East West Center auditorium. He has shifted from questioning the center’s funding to seeing it as a critical piece of U.S. Pacific strategy. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Prior to that, the center had a longtime ally in Inouye. In 2011, The Washington Post reported that President Barack Obama’s administration tried to slash the East-West Center’s funding but Inouye managed to increase it as the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The center suffered from a reputation as an unnecessary earmark. Then-Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from California, reportedly said at a congressional hearing in 2011, “I am unaware of any major accomplishments that can be attributed to the East-West Center over its 50 years.”

Case thinks the center’s struggles to amass congressional support partially reflected the country’s general neglect of the Pacific at the time as well as a philosophical push toward isolationism.

Skepticism over the past decade also may have stemmed partially from the center’s lack of clear articulation of its priorities. The center’s new strategic plan unveiled by Vares-Lum two months ago was the first new plan since 2005.

Schatz said after he took office in 2012, “I was unclear as to how to describe the essential importance of the center, given that the State Department already has an Asia bureau, and there’s already the Daniel K. Inouye Center for Security Studies, and INDOPACOM (the Indo-Pacific Command) has a shop that thinks around these issues. We didn’t need just another think tank.”

Today, he’s pleased with the center’s renewed efforts to serve as a place to convene high-level discussions among Pacific leaders. He says he and Vares-Lum share concerns that the U.S. has too often mistreated Pacific nations including treating them simply as military outposts.

The U.S. military has been beefing up its training and infrastructure in the Pacific region particularly on Guam, Wake Island and the Northern Mariana Islands over the past decade and has suggested expanding its presence in Palau. The military relies on island territories and nations for strategic air fields and both land and undersea training ranges that enable the U.S. to easily access the Asia-Pacific region.

“We needed to provide a forum for engagement so that when we talk to a leader of a Pacific island nation and we do need something, that it’s not like we only come around every two or three years to ask if we can use their runways. There has to be a real friendship there,” Schatz said.

Vares-Lum said respect, innovation and collaboration are key values guiding the nonprofit’s work as it seeks to partner with Pacific communities.

That facilitator role is also appreciated by Gray, who served in the Trump administration.

“As someone who was in the government and worked with the East-West Center, what I appreciated was they play a role as a convener and as a facilitator to have conversations that sometimes are easier to have with the Pacific when they’re done through a third party,” he said.

Growth And Potential

Schatz sees the East-West Center as a projection of U.S. soft power in the Pacific.

Vares-Lum is careful to note that while the organization gets most of its funding from Congress, it operates independently. But the center’s priorities are in many ways aligned with Biden’s Pacific strategy, particularly the emphasis on climate change.

That’s an area where Vares-Lum hopes to strengthen the center’s offerings, perhaps by providing technical assistance to countries struggling to access international funding for climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Esther Kiaaina, former assistant secretary for insular areas at the U.S. Department of the Interior under Obama, thinks the center should strengthen the dialogue it promotes around public policy solutions to problems such as economic sustainability.

Satu Limaye, the center’s vice president and director of its Washington offices, said the center recently served as a venue for treaty negotiations in the region and regularly convenes talks between Pacific ambassadors and U.S. officials. He said the nonprofit has been serving as a resource on the Pacific for U.S. congressional staffers and hopes to grow its efforts to provide testimony, articles and analysis for congressional briefings.

“The bottom line with the East-West Center is that it’s far more critical today and into the next couple of decades with the geopolitical situation we face.” — Hawaii Congressman Ed Case

Kiaaina, who is currently Honolulu City Council vice chair and executive director of the Pacific Basin Development Council, also hopes to see more East-West Center inclusion of U.S. Pacific territories in conversations about the region.

Vares-Lum said she sees Hawaii and U.S. island territories as an integral part of the Pacific, and noted that Pacific peoples are historically, genealogically, culturally and linguistically connected. Geopolitical boundaries “shouldn’t determine who we are in the Pacific,” she said.

As the center grows, Gray sees potential for the East-West Center to build expert capacity in the region.

You go to Australia, you go to New Zealand, there is a big cadre of people who’ve spent their careers studying and thinking about the Pacific. And we need to build that type of expertise in the United States, and I can’t think of a better place to do it than in Honolulu,” the American Foreign Policy Council fellow said.

Obama at East-West Center
President Barack Obama’s administration tried to cut the East-West Center’s funding, but the late Sen. Daniel Inouye foiled those efforts. Pool Photo by Cindy Ellen Russell/2016

‘A Critical Component’

Already the increase in federal funding is paying dividends by enabling the organization to double the three-person staff of the Pacific Islands Development Program, Vares-Lum explains.

The program recently became the first U.S. organization to be accepted into the Council of Regional Organisations in the Pacific, an international collaboration, Vares-Lum said. She said the program will also soon bring back the defunct Pacific Islands Report to share news from the region.

If Congress approves more than $25 million this year, much of the new funding will go to scholarships for students from the South Pacific, including countries such as the Solomon Islands and Fiji. Vares-Lum said the center routinely receives more applications from qualified students than it can afford to accept.

Case noted that in the absence of more U.S. funding, many South Pacific students have been participating in educational exchanges with China.

“China was eating our lunch on that and still is to some extent,” he said. But Case also said his support of the East-West Center is not just due to its national security value but also its importance to Hawaii in particular.

“This is really a critical component of Hawaii’s presence and projection of our country into the Indo-Pacific,” he said.

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