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Now is the Time to Implement a Multilateral Strategy for the Pacific

US Deputy Secretary Sullivan Hosts Roundtable with Foreign Ministers from Pacific Island Countries in New York City, September 27, 2018.

Ambassador Steven McGann (ret) and Richard Pruett

Washington should build upon new Congressional initiatives to strengthen its alliances and partnerships with Pacific Islands Countries (PICs). It can best do so by looking beyond bilateral relationships to better utilizing existing regional architecture through multilateral and intergovernmental organizations.

The Pacific Defense Initiative (PDI) proposes over billion in Congressional appropriations for FY2021.  Recently introduced by Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX), the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, and modeled after the European Defense Initiative, the PDI would spend billion over six years to beef up U.S. and Allied defenses in the Indo-Pacific region. It would do so in line with an operational plan that focuses on four areas: joint force lethality; force design and posture; exercise, experimentation, and innovation; and strengthening alliances and partnerships.

Similar bipartisan legislation in the form of HR 7797, the Boosting Long-term U.S. Engagement in the Pacific Act, introduced by Rep. Ed Case (D-HI), with support from other members of the Friends of the Pacific Islands Congressional caucus, would appropriate an additional billion per year for five years in funding for a diplomatic and civilian effort mirroring the PDI. These Congressional initiatives promise to help meet the threats to the region stemming from transnational crime and the rise of an aggressive People’s Republic of China (PRC).

These legislative acts would not be matters for discretionary policy but Congressionally mandated requirements subject to Congressional oversight.  Allied and partner countries across the region would see a tangible expression of U.S. commitment to the Indo-Pacific that is politically sustainable and rooted in public law, not in executive agreements that might end with the first change in administrations.  Like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s July 13 pronouncement listing specific PRC maritime claims in the South China/West Philippine Sea as illegal, the new legislation would give additional clarity to U.S. policy in the region.

Emerging from the Second World War as the Pacific region’s dominant power, the United States was pro-active in shaping regional political institutions.  Importantly, the United States was given the responsibility of administering the United Nations (UN) Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI) spanning the Western and Central Pacific. Comprised of the Caroline, Mariana, and Marshall Island chains, this territory became what today are the unincorporated U.S. territories of American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), and Guam, and the independently sovereign Freely Associated States (FAS), consisting of three Micronesian countries: the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau.

The United States has strong alliances with the FAS; however, the neighboring Micronesian countries of Kiribati and Nauru were not part of the TTPI and so now lie outside this framework.  The United States yielded its territorial claims pertaining to Kiribati in 1978.

Washington limited its outreach in the South Pacific.  Although it continued to have an ongoing interest in Fiji and Tonga, it refrained from adopting a security role in the Melanesian countries of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

Washington has been inconsistent in the attention it has devoted to its bilateral relationships with the PICs.  Periodic power vacuums have occurred that were largely filled by Canberra, Wellington, and the PICs themselves, but also by malign transnational actors operating on the margins of sovereign reach.

In recent years, the PRC has dramatically increased its own bilateral diplomatic and economic presence in the region and attempts to influence its multilateral institutions.

The PICs’ individual capacity to meet governance challenges is often insufficient to achieve regional goals, but, acting collectively, they have a proven record of adopting robust multilateral approaches to successful problem-solving.  The United States has repeatedly fostered this unity in its efforts to help the PICs combine and integrate their efforts to develop local capacity over the past nearly 75 years.

The regional intergovernmental institution that best reflects the United States’ inclusive, integrative approach is the Secretariat for the Pacific Community (SPC).  The SPC is the most venerable, indispensable, and inclusionary of the eight organizations in the Council of Regional Organizations of the Pacific (CROP).  The mission of the SPC is to pool the scientific and other resources among the PICs that otherwise lie beyond the capacity of any single Pacific Island government.  A truly pan-Pacific regional organization that includes territories in addition to countries, the 26-member SPC remains the central mainstay of the region’s institutional framework.

The United States is a founding member of the SPC and donated its main offices in Noumea, New Caledonia, and Suva, Fiji.   The United States collaborates with the SPC on a wide range of vital issues, including: maritime and port security; the fight against pandemic influenza, non-communicable diseases, as well as other public health threats; fisheries’ protection and natural resources management; search and rescue training; food security; supporting women and other vulnerable populations and mitigating the negative impacts of climate change.  Any additional resourcing of the PICs should begin with funding the SPC, often the most cost-effective and relatively apolitical institutional vehicle for delivering material progress on these important issues to the PICs.

American Samoa, the CNMI, and Guam have separate membership in the SPC.  In the past, representatives from American Samoa and Guam have even served as SPC Director General.  Greater U.S. leadership in the SPC would promote the harmonization of regional standards and resources with the FAS and U.S. Pacific territories.

Standing at the policymaking apex of the CROP agencies today is the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), comprised of the PICs, Australia, and New Zealand.  The Secretary General of the PIF is the permanent chairman of the CROP.  The United States is not a member of the PIF but participates in its Post-Forum Dialogue on the margins of its annual leaders meeting and occasionally funds PIF Secretariat programs.

U.S. diplomatic efforts should build on and amplify the new Congressional initiatives in support of U.S. national security goals for the region.  Consideration should be given to the creation of a “Special Envoy for Pacific Island Countries,” an ambassador-at-large with responsibility for engaging with allies and coordinating multilateral cooperation throughout the region.  The envoy would coordinate with State, Interior, Peace Corps, USINDOPACOM and other USG stakeholders to ensure that regional efforts track with national security goals and benefit regional economic development and stability.  The envoy would help facilitate Taipei’s contributions to regional economic development and humanitarian assistance.  Finally, the Special Envoy would provide continuity for the rotation of cabinet-level officials attending the Post-Forum Dialogue by serving as the focal point for U.S. interaction with the CROP agencies, as well as the Melanesian Spearhead Group, an intergovernmental organization with expanding influence among the Melanesian countries.

Such continuity could be quite useful. In September 2011, the U.S. territories of American Samoa, the CNMI, and Guam were granted PIF observer status, while five years later the French territories of French Polynesia and New Caledonia were given full membership.  France regards French Polynesia as an overseas country, but the people of New Caledonia voted against becoming an overseas country, choosing to remain part of France in a 2018 independence referendum.  Given that a French Pacific territory has been admitted to full PIF membership while U.S. Pacific territories remain relegated only to observer status, the Special Envoy could help ascertain from the PIF Secretariat why the United States should not be accorded parity.

Most importantly, a multilateral approach with sustained bilateral Congressional support would defend America’s interests on the regional stage, in common with those of its friends and allies.  It would match resources to Washington’s longstanding—but chronically under-financed—expressions of commitment to the region, while complementing the assistance programs underwritten by Canberra and Wellington in parallel with other key partners.  Historically, the United States has long advocated for such an approach.

Now is the time to implement it.


Ambassador Steven McGann (ret.) Founder of The Stevenson Group, an international consulting firm. He was formerly a Senior Foreign Service Officer with the rank of Minister-Counselor and served as US Ambassador to the Republics of Fiji, Nauru, Kiribati, and the Kingdom of Tonga and Tuvalu.

Richard K. Pruett is a former U.S. Foreign Service officer who has served as Deputy Chief of Mission to six Pacific Island countries, including the FSM. He is now a senior consultant and director with The Stevenson Group, a Washington, DC-based consultancy specializing in international development and security.

Pacific Islands