The United States should pay more attention to the Pacific

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China suffered a rare diplomatic setback last week when 10 Pacific island nations hijacked its offer of a sweeping trade and security deal. However, the rebuff will not end China’s efforts to exert influence over these tiny, distant countries. The United States must respond with the same determination – or risk losing ground in a strategically vital region.

Although sparsely populated, the Pacific Islands are critical to the security interests of the United States and its allies. In particular, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau – which are bound by so-called Compacts of Free Association that provide the United States with exclusive military access to their territory – serve as a “power projection highway” linking US forces in Hawaii at forward positions. at the theatre. Western planners assume that China’s ultimate goal is to counter the United States by gaining a military foothold in countries like the Solomon Islands or Kiribati, from where it could expand the reach of its navy and threaten lines of communication to Australia and New Zealand.

Given the stakes, US engagement in the region has been incredibly inconsistent. Past promises to deepen economic and security ties – dating back 30 years – have crumbled after initial fanfare. Efforts by previous US and Australian governments to improve relations have been undermined by their skepticism about climate change – an existential issue for low-lying island nations. The administration of US President Joe Biden sent a dire signal by letting talks to renew economic aid to the three Compact nations languish until very recently. The United States ranked only fifth in direct aid to the region between 2009 and 2019, behind Australia, New Zealand, China and Japan.

By contrast, China has provided not only aid but also vast business opportunities: by one estimate, it absorbed more than half of the region’s exported timber, seafood and minerals in 2019. Chinese companies have built lavish infrastructure projects all over the islands. Chinese diplomats are more visible than their American counterparts, while China’s top leadership has been assiduously cultivating Pacific elites. In a sign of how China can leverage those ties to make strategic inroads, the country recently reached a signed security agreement with the Solomon Islands that could open the door to Chinese naval visits.

To avoid further Chinese expansion, the United States will need to demonstrate that it understands the region’s long-term priorities and can meet them better than China. The first step must be to quickly conclude negotiations on aid to the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau. In addition to scholarships and eligibility for certain federal programs, the United States could face greater compensation claims for US nuclear test survivors, as well as greater environmental remediation. It is a price to pay. Beyond America’s moral obligations, these are small investments to make given the islands’ military value.

Equally important, the United States must work with partners such as Australia and Japan to develop a comprehensive strategy for the region as a whole. They should pool their resources to develop landmark infrastructure projects, improve digital connectivity, provide business incentives and provide development opportunities for Pacific Islanders. They should step up their efforts to tackle what local leaders see as their top security threats, from illegal fishing to climate change.

The United States, in particular, should expand its diplomatic presence and engage more coherently with regional groupings such as the Pacific Islands Forum. Congress should move forward with proposals that would mandate such a strategy, and then fund it appropriately.

A dose of realism would also help. Pacific nations are not naïve to Chinese ambitions, and most have little interest in being lectured or becoming pawns in a new Cold War. While drawing the line for a Chinese military presence, the United States should accept that these countries will continue to pursue Chinese investment and trade. Relying on common interests, not coercion, is the best way for the United States to both promote the welfare of the Pacific Islands and keep a watchful eye on China.

More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• China wins the battle for the South Pacific: James Stavridis

• The islands that the West has forgotten but that China has not forgotten: Ruth Pollard

• Joe Biden’s big Asian trade deal is just a small step: editorial

The editors are members of the Bloomberg Opinion Editorial Board.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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