A new U.S. Senate bill laying out American foreign policy priorities as the U.S. and China compete for influence around the globe contains several provisions focusing on Pacific Island nations and communities.

Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz, who sits on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, authored six provisions in the bipartisan Strategic Competition Act that emphasize the increasing strategic importance of the region.

“We have deep ties to the Oceania community grounded in our shared commitment to respecting human rights and the rule of law, protecting marine resources, and combating the global climate crisis,” Schatz said in a press release Wednesday.

“This bill firms up our foreign policy commitment to Oceania by ensuring that we are aligning all the tools of U.S. diplomacy to strengthen people-to-people ties and support the economic needs and long-term resilience goals of our allies and partners in the region.”

Members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation have been vocal about concerns that the U.S. is neglecting its interests in Oceania and allowing Beijing to establish a strategic foothold. Mark Edward Harris/Civil Beat

The bill calls on the secretary of state to come up with a policy statement on the importance of the Oceania region to U.S. national interests and to craft a strategy for strengthening U.S. engagement with the countries of Oceania.

It notes that U.S. officials should work closely with Australia, New Zealand, and Japan “to address shared concerns and goals in pursuit of security and resiliency.”

Schatz also pushed for the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Peace Corps to expand operations across the Pacific Islands and called for the State Department to provide a report to Congress on the effects of overfishing on communities in Oceania.

The Chinese government heavily subsidizes the operations of its expansive distant water fishing fleets, and the Chinese navy maintains a “maritime militia” of military trained fishermen that it uses to spy on foreign Navy vessels and stake out disputed territory in the South China Sea.

China has been extending its influence across Oceania, competing with both the United States and Taiwan.

Last year the island nation of Kiribati — just south of Hawaii — became part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative to establish infrastructure in support of Chinese political and economic interests. Kiribati is also the site of a mothballed satellite tracking system once run by China’s military-run space program and some security analysts believe Beijing sees Kiribati as a potential military outpost.

Hawaii’s congressional delegation as well as delegates from America’s Pacific Island territories have been vocal about concerns that the U.S. has neglected its interests in Oceania and in 2019 Rep. Ed Case established the Pacific Islands Caucus.

Former President Donald Trump’s administration initially made deep cuts to U.S. programs in the region but in the later years ramped up attention on the Pacific Islands as China made gains in the region. In its last year, the administration made curbing unregulated fishing by Chinese vessels a priority and signed an agreement with Palau to establish a new military base in the former American territory.

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