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Opportunistic Interests: The US-Pacific Island Declaration

If ever there was a blatant statement of realpolitik masquerading as friendliness, the latest US-Pacific Island declaration must count as one of them. The Biden administration has been busy of late, wooing Pacific Island states in an effort to discourage increasingly sharp tilt towards China. It has been spurred on, in no small way, by Beijing’s failure in May to forge a trade and security pact with Pacific Island countries.

In July, Vice President Kamala Harris was given the task of spreading the good word to those attending the Pacific Islands Forum that the US “is a proud Pacific nation and has an enduring commitment to the Pacific Islands, which is why President Joe Biden and I seek to strengthen our partnership with you.”

Harris also acknowledged the Pacific Islands had not been in Washington’s diplomatic radar in recent years. They had not received deserving “attention and support.” This, she promised, would change. As a start, embassies would be established in Tonga and Kiribati. A United States Envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum would be appointed.  USAID would also expand its operations and re-establish a regional mission in Suva, Fiji.

This month, the focus has been on the push for a broader declaration designed to rope in the sceptics. President Biden, in his address to leaders at the State Department ahead of the White House dinner, extravagantly declared that, “The security of America and, quite frankly, the world, depends on your security – and the security of the Pacific Islands.”

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, in remarks made before a September 29 meeting with the leaders of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated State of Micronesia and Republic of Palau, spoke of “the incredible breath and depth of the relationship and partnership we have.”

The previous day, at a working lunch with US-Pacific Island Country Leaders, Blinken also spoke of “a shared history, value and enduring people-to-people ties.” As part of a group, the United States would discuss with Pacific Island states “the challenges that we face, exchange ideas and perspectives, and chart a way forward to deliver on the issues that matter most to our people.”

As has become customary in the Blinkenesque argot, one takes the management waffle with the occasional candid remark. China, the obvious target in this latest push for deeper regional engagement by Washington, is not mentioned once. The threats of climate change, the role of viruses, transnational criminal organisations, corruption and human trafficking are.

But the shadow of Beijing is discernible in remarks that the grouping will be able to preserve “a free and open Indo-Pacific where every nation – no matter how big, no matter how small – has the right to choose its own path.”

The declaration itself makes eleven points. Among them is the resolve to strengthen the partnership to enable “individuals to reach their potential” and foster conditions where “the environment can thrive, and democracy will be able to flourish.” Greater US involvement in terms of diplomatic presence and “development cooperation” is envisaged. Other bread and butter points include responding to the climate crisis, advancing sustainable development and economic growth, and improving responses to disasters.

The standout provision is the seventh, where the nature of US power is camouflaged behind the promise of keeping the “Blue Pacific Continent” free of war and conflict. “We will oppose all efforts to undermine the territorial integrity and sovereignty of any country, large or small. We condemn all wars of aggression, including Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine.” This is very much the sentiment of a policing authority, a watchful armed guard.

Such a sentiment also finds voice in a White House release, which explicitly states Washington’s determination to maintain a firm hand in the Pacific. “The United States recognizes that geography links the Pacific’s future to our own: US prosperity and security depend on the Pacific region remaining free and open.”

Some of the Pacific Island states have expressed their pleasure at the whole circus, with Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa openly contrasting Washington’s approach with that of Beijing’s in May. “We’ve been insisting that if partners wish to talk to us, collectively, then they need to do it through the modalities of the Pacific [Islands] Forum.” China, in proposing something similar along the lines of the declaration, had not done so.

While approving in her remarks about the general nature of the agreement, the Samoan leader was also explicit in what it did not promote. Maintaining regional peace and security was an important goal but should not come at the cost of an increased US military presence. “We wouldn’t like to encourage that in any way.” This may prove to be wishful thinking, given Washington’s ambitions as expressed in the AUKUS security pact.

The other good reason for the attraction among certain Pacific Island states is the cash that is predicted to follow. An amount somewhere in the order of US$860 million in expanded aid programs is expected in addition to the US$1.5 billion provided in the last decade.

The Solomon Islands, which has proven to be more friendly than most towards Beijing, is a case in point, and will receive additional aid to improve its tourism industry. This is despite having shown reluctance to signing the declaration in the first place. But if the conduct of the Sogavare government is anything to go by, the more cunning Pacific Island leaders will be happy to take whatever they can get their hands on from both Beijing and Washington. That would certainly make things open if agitating.

 

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10 comments

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  1. Ann

    “Solomon Islands, which has proven to be more friendly than most towards Beijing”, or correction, should that read ‘the PM of the Solomon Islands, who has proven to be more bribe-able than most towards the CCP’?
    The US could have left this job of maintaining the status quo to their deputies in the South Pacific but after the 99 year lease agreement of the Port of Darwin passed by without any Federal govt intervention it is obvious they cannot rely on that group of sleeping clowns for anything other than rent-seeking.

  2. Canguro

    Noting that the use of weasel language is in no way strictly confined to American apparatchiks; this article again confirms the intimate embrace by the political and diplomatic elite of the USA of that form of verbiage, specifically, their gushing & cloyed sentiments regarding their ‘special relationships’ with Pacific Island countries.

    Let’s get real here.

    The United States annexed Hawaii in 1898. In other words, appropriated the islands for their own use, overturning millenia of occupational status by the native Hawaiians, sans compensation. Sound familiar? Another terra nullius? Savages in grass skirts counting for nothing in the eyes of the big white masters.

    The Spanish-American war, a function of America’s intolerance of Spanish colonialism of Cuba, lead by extension via America’s aggression against the Spanish to the Philippines, culminating in their ‘acquisition’ (weasel word) of that island nation in 1898, and from there to the American-Philippine war as the Filipinos resisted the swapping of colonial masters and paid dearly for their resistance through the brutality inflicted upon them by American forces, including mass murder of civilians, rape of women, slaughter of children and rampant war crime never acknowledged or compensated.

    So much for ‘acquisition’ and a friendly and fraternal relationship.

    America has retained a permanent presence in the Republic of Korea since the armistice signing off of military engagement with North Korea in July 1953. Around 22,000 military personnel are currently stationed in South Korea. The presence of Americans has fundamentally changed the cultural behaviour; Americanisation of Korean culture, also known as Coca-Colonisation, has brought fast food, pop music, crass embrace of consumerism along with Christian missionaries who have opportunistically flooded the peninsular to the extent that what was once a Buddhist nation is now roughly split 50/50 with various Christian groups, including fundamentalist and Hillsong versions along with a mercenary approach that strips 10% or more of any churchgoer’s wealth from their pockets. The USAF’s presence is not universally welcomed or admired, much more a matter of grudging acceptance of a unwelcome visitor that cannot be shifted or evicted.

    The American possession of Guam was another outcome of the Spanish-American war, Spain having previously colonised the island in the 17th C., but subsequently ceded to America at the end of the 19th C. One might reasonably argue that an enlightened interest might have had the Spanish colonists say goodbye and let the original inhabitants return to their own ways, free from outside interference, but no… America stayed, and today has around 7,000 members of its armed forces permanently stationed there, along with air bases as a strategic asset against China and North Korea. Despite America offering token self-representation to the indigenous inhabitants, by default the island is firmly in the grip of the American government as a major strategic asset and will remain so until the end of time, one might safely assume.

    In Japan, around 45,000 USAF are permanently stationed, some in Okinawa, some on other islands. Another example of the shameless and domineering mentality of American imperialism; first we destroyed Okinawa and committed massive war crimes in that offensive, then we capped that by destroying two civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs, and then we set up a permanent military presence.. which is not universally welcomed, not at all; another example of their unwillingness to read the writing that says ‘just go, we don’t want you here.’

    Against this historical and current background, Secretary of State Blinken spoke of “the incredible breath and depth of the relationship and partnership we have”, in regard to relationships within the Pacific theatre. (weasel words).

    USVP Kamala Harris said that “the US is a proud Pacific nation and has an enduring commitment to the Pacific Islands.” (weasel words).

    And President Biden said that the “security of America and, quite frankly, the world, depends on your security – and the security of the Pacific Islands.” (weasel words).

    I guess it’s easier to lie and talk cockswaddle than to to admit they’ve been an aggressive coloniser and destroyer of peoples and cultures for more than a hundred years in this so-called backyard of common interests.

  3. Harry Lime

    If Blinken was a Samoan, his name would translate as Fatu Fula Faeces.

  4. Denis Bright

    Thanks Dr Kampmark for your well researched and topical articles.

    US neocolonialism has been on the rise in the post-1945 era. The Cold War contributed to the eclipse of radicalism in US domestic politics.

    Gun-ho culture of this long-era has been fostered by infotainment in news and escapist popular culture both within the USA and abroad.

    A more independent media is absolutely essential in Australia with a vast increase in funding for public broadcasting and state film institutes.

    The media fosters blindspots in our understanding of Pacific and near Asian neighbours.

    Kamala Harris is supposed to be a younger progressive leader in US domestic politics but her weasel words at the Pacific Security Conference ignored the extent of poverty, related health problems and social unrest in PNG.

    While the mainstream media focuses on the need for more defence support for PNG, people are dying in social unrest in the Highlands at a time when seasonal influenza viruses have also taken their toll.

    In order to protect Australians from another 1975 styled-coup, our leaders should nod agreement with leaders like Anthony Blinken and work up more subtle independent policy strategies which can be framed in the spirit of 1776 so that they go under the radar in Washington.

  5. A Commentator

    Interesting
    It begs the questions –
    * Is it legitimate for superpowers to seek spheres of influence?
    * How are sphere of influence best achieved?

  6. Michael Taylor

    Good questions, AC, that are begging for answers.

    I’d love to hear yours.

  7. A Commentator

    Thank you.
    1. As I’ve said, I’d prefer that there weren’t superpowers. But since we have them, I’m glad one is a western democracy.
    The current voluntary/political engagement of Pacific Islands, and even the clumsy narrative of Kamala Harris, is in stark contrast to Russia’s attempt to move Ukraine back into its sphere of influence via invasion and war crime.
    2. Given that spheres of influence are inevitable due to the existence of superpowers, it is entirely reasonable that nations with consistent or similar systems of government, similar regional and institutional security concerns, will form a “union” of interests
    Who could possibly object to common interests acting as a “union”?

  8. Michael Taylor

    You won’t have long to wait, AC.

    In history at uni we learnt that dominant empires have held their dominance, on average, 500 years.

    The changing of the guard is only about 430 years away, should we still be here.

  9. A Commentator

    I’m up for the wait. My wife tells me that my cellar has enough red for the duration

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