Walsh School of Foreign Service
Oceanic Currents

A Constructive Response to Multilateral Engagement with Pacific Island Countries

The Freely Associated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Palau joined by Kiribati and Nauru have announced their intention to withdraw from the Pacific Islands Forum. (PIF). The breach results from the failure to abide by agreements to rotate the elected leadership among Micronesian, Polynesian and Melanesian countries as well as Fiji’s promise not to seek the leadership role in exchange for housing the PIF headquarters. The election outcome revealed the shifting fault lines within the PIF undermining its cohesion while asserting the increasing primacy of Melanesian countries. The absence of an elected government spared New Caledonia from making a potentially unpopular domestic political decision. In effect it kicked downfield a choice between Melanesian and Polynesian candidates that had the potential to unnecessarily impact its own internal politics. The consensus decision to seat the former Cooks Island PM Henry Puna in the Secretary General has left the PIF rattled.

At the same time, the internecine kerfuffle within the PIF did not undermine Pacific Island Countries (PICs) longstanding efforts to build regional multilateral frameworks. Notwithstanding the efficacy of trying to maintain a non-binding agreement, the failure of this approach points to the need to revisit the underlying concerns and requirements of regional multilateral organizations. Washington should respond to these new circumstances with a review of how best to meet collective regional security objectives and address adversarial competition. This review should include a better approach to the PICs predilection for multilateral arrangements and partner country contributions.

The review gives greater urgency for the Biden Administration to continue efforts to harmonize U.S. policies in the North and South Pacific. The latter hinging largely on strengthening its engagement with Melanesian countries while recognizing challenges presented by regional adversaries particularly China as well as Russia.

The first step in this harmonization of approaches between the North and South Pacific is the imperative to close the gaps in assistance and cooperation with PICs that corresponds with broader U.S. security concerns, particularly countering China’s expanding influence. In recent months, the United States has been working to refresh the Compacts of Free Association (COFA) with Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau. These discussions have been at the center of repositioning Washington’s engagement in the region and strengthening the role of U.S INDOPACOM. This shift is required to meet the bipartisan legislation passed by Congress appropriates through the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI) to provide the necessary resources for building new platforms and stronger regional relationships. Moreover, this legislative approach also melds U. S. security objectives with PICs human security needs.

To fill the gaps in the North Pacific, this review has included steps to strengthen the previous 1979 Treaty of Friendship with Kiribati and build upon the 2013 Treaty on the Delimitation of Maritime Boundaries which creates a contiguous marine protective area stretching from Honolulu to Guam and uniquely bridges most of the distance between Hawaii and Australia. This would firmly center Kiribati’s large Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) within the established security architecture outlined between the U.S. and the Freely Associated States.

This revised framework for Micronesian maritime domain awareness would promote collective security interests while bolstering existing bilateral programs that address fisheries protection and unlicensed fishing. While short of an overarching COFA this approach points to greater symmetry within the region.

Nauru’s recognition of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from the Republic of Georgia largely result of a gratuitous lump sum payment from Russia has hampered US-Nauru bilateral cooperation. However, Nauru’s participation in the US ship-riders agreement program which provides PICs with fisheries protection and maritime domain awareness remains an important aspect of the relationship. Concomitantly, it reaffirms the importance of multilateral cooperation with international and regional organizations to implement comprehensive policy toward the PICs.

The current contretemps over the PIF manifests the necessity to reimagine how the US addresses collective security in the region. The Biden Administration should strongly consider designating a Special Envoy for Pacific Island Countries to provide continuity and consistency to the emerging multilateral framework at an appropriate senior level. Such a position would ensure that INDOPACOM regional goals undertaken by the Pacific Deterrence Initiative would be understood by PICs as part of collaborative arrangements.

The U.S. should support efforts by the East-West Center based in Honolulu to revitalize the Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders (PICL) annual dialogue. The PICL has historically linked Hawaii, Guam, Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas and American Samoa with the Northern Pacific in a concrete framework.

These discussions have included addressing overlapping concerns such as migration, health care, climate change, gender and economic development. A newly-focused PICL would not replace the PIF but augment existing regional multilateral priorities. Moreover, it would continue to reaffirm Honolulu’s role as the epicenter for regional engagement.

The Post-Forum Dialogue also is a useful tool for the U.S. to link its priorities in the North Pacific with the South Pacific. The leadership succession issue within the PIF should not distract from the organization’s important role as a policy clearinghouse for the annual Post-Forum Dialogue meeting with key donor countries. Implementation of the 2017 Women, Peace and Security Act should be the cornerstone of U.S. efforts in the Post-Forum Dialogue as it seeks to promote and protect women as well as other vulnerable populations in the region. It also would send a strong signal continuing the work of previous Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor on these key issues.

Consistency with PIF member countries, particularly Australia and New Zealand, is important to ensuring that relations in a changing Melanesia particularly with stronger engagements with the Solomon Islands, Bougainville and Vanuatu are properly navigated. It also aligns the U.S. with the central role of Fiji and Papua New Guinea in a regional strategy to counter Chinese encroachment. Moreover, working with other organizations such as the Forum Fisheries Agency, Melanesian Spearhead Group and the Pacific Islands Development Forum remains an important part of the integrated architecture linking the North and South Pacific.

At the center of this overall strategy to harmonize U.S. policy with PICs is its charter membership in the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC). The SPC would help undergird the United States review how additional assistance would be channeled through the region. At the same time, the U.S. identify additional ways to coordinate assistance through the SPC to Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau where appropriate. The U.S. Coast Guard has a well-established relationship with the SPC, particularly regarding search and rescue efforts, that could further enhance regional maritime efforts. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has long been a partner to the SPC and a model for civilian agency participation in that body. The U.S. also should seize this opportunity to increase funding for the University of the South Pacific to sustain its importance in higher education.

The Center for Excellence and the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu are poised to focus work on this issue. Similarly, the expansion of the Nevada National Guard’s special partnership program for Fiji, Tonga and Kiribati to contingents from Wisconsin and Rhode Island to respectively cover Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste accentuates regional commitment. The US Agency for International Development initiatives on climate change and humanitarian response/disaster assistance for the PICs as well as Peace Corps and other civilian U.S. agencies also serve to fortify a comprehensive approach to significant multilateral engagement.

In summary, the Biden Administration has a unique opportunity to increase U.S. leadership and influence with PICs. The resolution of changes within the PIF will be resolved by its members. However, the U.S. should focus on identifying better ways to strengthen multilateral engagement and harmonizing its approaches to the North and South Pacific. As a result, by using a constructive response to multilateral engagement, the U.S. will be better placed to achieve its strategic regional objectives.

pacific islands forum