The United States needs an engagement policy with the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) that is Flexible, Appropriate, Coordinated and Effective (FACE).
It needs to show flexibility when working with PICs, and when working with partners.
Part of what led to the current situation in Solomon Islands was Australia’s inflexible insistence on working primarily, if not only, with the leader of the central government, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, rather than also with the broad range of much more like-minded potential partners who share the average Australian’s same values of democracy, transparency, accountability and rule of law. This includes Provincial leaders, media groups, traditional Chiefs, Church leaders, women’s groups, and more.
True democracy is diffuse, evolving and adaptable; so should be the engagement. The U.S. showed it understands this when the delegation to the Solomons, led by National Security Council Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell met with opposition and Church leaders. There needs to be more of that. Including inviting them to visit the U.S.
Similarly, there should be a flexible approach to partnerships. The three regions of Oceania – Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia – are all very different, and each country within those regions is also markedly distinct.
So, for example, in Micronesia, three of the five countries (Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia and Palau) have free association agreements with the United States, and three (Marshall Islands, Nauru and Palau) recognize Taiwan. It’s no accident that of the five Micronesian countries, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi only landed in one, Kiribati, on his recent tour. So, working with Quad partners (and perhaps South Korea) across Micronesia might make sense, as well as being flexible enough to include Taiwan for Marshalls, Nauru and Palau.
Whatever engagement happens needs to shaped by the imperatives of the PICs, not the bureaucracies of partners. In many cases, PICs are overwhelmed by inappropriate workshops, trainings, and small projects that are more paperwork than results, being foisted on them by partners who have boxes to check.
Additionally, in many cases, there is little return seen on the ground from money poured into regional bureaucracies, including the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). As one Marshallese put it: “you give a million dollars to the PIF and a chunk of it might go to pay the generous salary of an New Zealand bureaucrat living in a gated community in Fiji. What we need are things that locals can see and use and benefit from. India gave a bus to the Marshalls that is used for many things, including a school bus. Every school day kids see the Indian flag helping them get an education. That matters.”
It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that bureaucracies that are appropriate for your type of structures are appropriate for the countries you are trying to work with.
For example, the new Australian government seems to be showing willing, but new Foreign Minister Penny Wong chose to make her first speech about the Pacific at the Pacific Island Forum. She spoke about listening to the people of the region, in contrast to previous Australian governments that “ignored” and “disrespected” them.
However, just over a year ago, the five Micronesian countries stated they wanted to leave the Forum because they thought it was, yes, ignoring and disrespecting them. They made their concerns clear but there is ongoing pressure to try to get them to stay, without addressing their issues. By choosing that venue, Wong didn’t help her case about “listening” to what PIC leaders are saying, especially the Micronesian five – she instead chose a venue that was convenient for Australia. Hopefully it was a ‘newbie’ mistake. The way to avoid more of those is deeper coordination within systems and across the region, as suggested by several people, including in 2018 by Charles Edel.
This means that, on the partner’s side, departments and agencies directing defense, trade, development, intelligence, and more, need to be working towards clear and transparent common goals, in a complementary fashion. There needs to be ownership and especially accountability within and across the systems. If something doesn’t work, we need to know why, and work fix it – it can’t get buried by the systems. This is one reason China announced the creation of the post of a Chinese Government Special Envoy for Pacific Island Countries Affairs. It was a smart move.
In the U.S., the National Security Council should have a dedicated Director for Oceania, and relevant departments, like State should as well. Currently responsibilities for Oceania tend to be combined with other regions, such as East Asia, leaving even the hardest working staff over-tasked. Additionally, this is a complex region – some countries in Micronesia may feel closer to Japan, Philippines or Guam; some in Melanesia engage with Indonesia and Australia; others in Polynesia work with Hawaii, New Zealand or even France (via French Polynesia). The view of the region should be centered in the region – from the inside out – so opportunities aren’t missed.
Linking them together, Alan Tidwell’s proposal for a permanent interagency working group on the Pacific should be seriously considered.
At the same time, the guidance and implementation coming from the PICs needs to be domestically coordinated. In many cases, while there are excellent local analysts with a deep understanding of geopolitics, community needs and potentials for economic development, there is a lack of institutional structure, making them hard to find, and making it difficult for them to gain momentum.
The innovative National Security Coordinator (NSC) position established in Palau is a useful model to support and replicate. It allows for a one-stop, informed and permanent contact point between systems, facilitating coordination for both sides.
What would also be helpful is the creation of a network of locally run think tanks along the lines of the Royal Oceania Institute that support the local NSCs and can do research in local languages and help partners find the appropriate local experts to ensure that whatever is tried is effective.
This is the bottom line. If it doesn’t work for the people of the PICs, it doesn’t work. Any engagement needs to be effective in supporting the people of the Pacific in their quest for democracy, transparency, accountability and rule of law. With those pillars in place, they can build out their economies and fully participate in, and see the value of, a free and open Indo-Pacific.
It takes work, thought and strategic empathy, though not necessarily more money. But, as we’ve seen, what we have been doing isn’t working and the PICs are fragmenting under the pressure. When regional leaders are asked what they want from the U.S., they often answer they just want the U.S., to show up – to be there – to show its face. Flexible, appropriate, cooperative and effective partnerships have the potential to show the true FACE of the United States to Pacific Island Countries, allowing them to flourish on their own terms, benefiting all except those who prefer broken vassal states to strong vibrant democracies.
Cleo Paskal is a non-resident senior fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies focusing on the Indo-Pacific region.