Good Intentions, Hubris And The Road To Hell At The US-Pacific Islands Summit - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Authors

Gerard Finin

Gerard Finin is a former director of the Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center, and is currently affiliated with the Georgetown University’s Center for Australian, New Zealand, and Pacific Studies.

Terence Wesley-Smith

Terence Wesley-Smith is professor emeritus in the Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawaii Manoa, and a former director of the center.

The first ever White House Pacific Island Country Summit held in late September represented a remarkable adjustment in U.S. policy toward the island states of Oceania. Washington’s diplomatic full-court press in the Pacific is part of a larger geopolitical initiative to blunt China’s growing global influence.

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Faith in American exceptionalism was on full display at the summit, with no hint that U.S. global power might be waning, or that the foundations of democratic governance are seriously challenged at home. American hubris might result in the Biden administration overpromising what it can deliver to the region and, worse still, run the risk of armed conflict by stoking geopolitical tensions with China.

Pacific history is entangled with the rise and decline of empires, as a parade of colonial powers has left indelible marks on the region. America’s westward expansion gained traction in the Pacific when Hawaii, Guam, and American Samoa were acquired in the late 19th century. U.S. officials like to cite World War II as instigating an enduring regional relationship, overlooking the reality that the allied victory restored western colonial rule over islanders for decades. Washington kept control of the Micronesian islands seized from Japan as a U.S.-administered Trust Territory.

Although self-governing nations emerged, the free association arrangements with the Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, and Palau extended U.S. strategic control over a vast North Pacific expanse. Other legacies of the Pacific War, including unexploded ordnance, remind islanders of the unequal nature of previous interactions, as well as the importance of their geostrategic location.

The U.S. ascent to global preeminence commenced after World War II, propelled by unprecedented economic prowess and backed by formidable military might. Following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 the U.S. was so confident of its supremacy in Oceania that it disengaged from much of the region. Diplomatic posts closed, the United States Agency for International Development moved out, the Peace Corps presence dwindled, and high-level meetings ceased.

As late as 2008 the U.S. insisted upon an exit strategy to end significant economic support to the freely associated states, its most important Pacific allies. The result was a renegotiated agreement featuring a trust fund supposed to support self-sufficiency by 2022, and greatly increased oversight of expenditures.

Pacific history is entangled with the rise and decline of empires.

The White House Summit was an attempt to “reset” U.S.-Pacific Islands relations. Washington’s renewed interest is a direct response to China’s increasing Pacific influence. With an economy almost as large as the U.S., growing control of technology, and a rapidly modernizing military, China is the only power currently capable of challenging U.S. global dominance. Washington has finally abandoned expectations that China would embrace democratic norms and accede to U.S. preeminence.

Rather than changing China, the Biden administration hopes to manage the military and geopolitical environment in which Beijing operates. The White House summit was part of a wider effort to rally opposition to China from “like-minded” countries.

At the summit the U.S. invoked lofty political values. Yet the record of U.S. action overseas includes numerous violations of human rights and international law, notably in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Washington’s pledge to promote democracy and good governance in the Pacific Islands also rings hollow given the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, and the fact that most Republican leaders still deny the validity of the 2020 presidential election.

‘New-Found Leverage’

Island leaders generally feel a greater affinity with American democratic processes, even if flawed, than they do with China’s opaque political structures. However, this is not a competition that will be won or lost on the basis of political values alone.

Rather it is largely transactional, with the U.S. seeking to outbid China in the Pacific.

Washington’s ability to engage is hampered by a shallow understanding of the region’s political sensibilities. This was evident when the U.S. administration invited only Pacific nations having United Nations membership to the summit, rather than all members of the Pacific Islands Forum — despite recognizing the forum as a “critical driver of regional action” in its own Pacific Partnership Strategy.

The invitation list was eventually expanded to include missing Forum members — Cook Islands, Niue, French Polynesia, and New Caledonia, as well as the forum’s secretary general. Washington hastily promised to recognize Cook Islands and Niue, which are freely associated with New Zealand, as sovereign states so that its agencies, including USAID, could deal with them directly.

The Marshall Islands called off Compact of Free Association talks U.S. negotiators over lingering concerns about the impact of nuclear testing in the region. Jessica Terrell/Civil Beat

Island leaders demonstrated their new-found leverage when the U.S. circulated a draft Declaration prior to the summit. Solomon Islands, which recently endorsed a security agreement with Beijing, agreed to sign the declaration only after anti-China wording was excised. In the days leading up to the summit, the leaders of the three freely associated states took the opportunity to indicate they were driving a hard bargain in negotiations to renew their agreements with the U.S.

In a letter to the National Security Council, the leaders described proposed U.S. economic assistance as “insufficient,” and the Marshall Islands publicly suspended negotiations after Washington failed to acknowledge concerns about ongoing health and other impacts of the U.S. nuclear testing program there.

The crucial need to address climate change issues, a unifying priority for all participating countries, was underscored by hurricane Ian, which devastated parts of Florida during the summit. The democratically elected island leaders were also aware of the Biden administration’s slim congressional majority and its uncertain reelection prospects.

All of the contingent promises for “deliverables” made during the summit, including those related to climate change, already widely regarded as inadequate, may come to naught should the Democrats lose power.

Although buoyed by unprecedented attention, the leaders may have pondered the Christian proverb about the road to hell being paved with good intentions, especially regarding the existential threat of climate change. They might also have wondered whether recent developments in their region reflect what Graham Allison calls Thucydides’ Trap, which suggests that war is the most likely outcome when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling one.

If war were to eventuate, the Pacific Islands would likely be drawn down a different road to hell, this one also created, at least in part, by hubris in Washington.

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About the Authors

Gerard Finin

Gerard Finin is a former director of the Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center, and is currently affiliated with the Georgetown University’s Center for Australian, New Zealand, and Pacific Studies.

Terence Wesley-Smith

Terence Wesley-Smith is professor emeritus in the Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawaii Manoa, and a former director of the center.


Latest Comments (0)

Lotta moaning but no solutions of their own offered, other than "hope the Republicans don't win the election." In Hawaii that's not an issue. Guys, you can't sit on the sidelines and be buzzkills and expect things to change. And of course politicians make lofty promises, what were you, born yesterday? I'll give you solutions. First off, point out how messed up China is. 0 women in their congress, Xi just became dictator for life and will surveil and squeeze the masses, increasing their desperation until they're a dangerous robot army, and they'll take all the fish as well as continue to be the biggest polluter as a country. Second, why are you talking about Afghanistan? If there's one thing Russia and China are teaching us right now, its that US influence, however flawed, is still 100 times better than what is happening in Ukraine, and what will happen in Taiwan one day if Xi gets his way.

DuDaMath · 3 weeks ago

They forgot to mention the dollars. The Pacific Island countries got a very disappointing commitment of $800 million over 10 years. $600 million of that is for tuna fishing licenses, and only $15 million is for combatting climate change.

regina · 3 weeks ago

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