Walsh School of Foreign Service
Oceanic Currents

What’s Next for the United States in the Pacific Islands?

Keith Polya, CC BY 2.0

Today, the PRC finds itself in changed circumstances with the Pacific Island countries.  How did this come about?  What steps should the United States take?  Beijing has seen its regional engagement rejected and, in some cases, its bilateral relations with island countries modestly diminished.  Concerning for Beijing has been the light shone on its use of strategic corruption in the region.  At the same time, Western donor nations have worked to improve their engagement throughout the region. It has not been all bad news for the PRC, however.  In some places they have found success and continue to build on those achievements.

The scales have tipped, ever so slightly, in the West’s favor.  It is a temporary state of affairs.  In thinking about “what’s next” a clear understanding of where we are is in order.

Pushing Back on China

China grabbed attention in May 2022 when Foreign Minister Wang Yi led a twenty-person delegation through the Pacific Islands.  He visited eight Pacific nations, while virtually meeting with two others.  His regional goal was to win a multination security agreement without negotiation.  The ambit claim triggered an immediate reply from Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo.  His impassioned letter pushed back against the Chinese proposal, accusing the proposed Common Development Vision as an effort to exert Chinese control over Pacific Island governments.

Pacific Island leaders made it clear that the Foreign Minister’s foray into the Pacific had been ill-conceived.  Samoa’s Prime Minister, Fiamē Naomi Mata’afa, noted the PRC’s approach had not been in accordance with the Pacific Way, which relies on consensus building.  She complained that the leaders had not had sufficient time to consider the Chinese offer.  The then Fijian Prime Minister, and chairman of the Pacific Islands Forum, Frank Bainimarama, noted it was a matter of priorities, “Geopolitical point-scoring means less than little to anyone whose community is slipping beneath the rising seas, whose job is being lost to the pandemic, or whose family is impacted by the rapid rise in the price of commodities,” Bainimarama said .

Where Wang Yi had missed his multilateral mark, he had greater success bilaterally concluding over fifty MOU’s over the course of his trip.

Bilaterally, Beijing has also had some stumbles.  Perhaps the most notable has been in Fiji where the new prime minister, Sitiveni Rabuka, has taken steps to wind back some of his predecessor’s policies.  On January 27, 2023, he terminated the practice of training Fijian police by the Chinese, begun under a 2011 MOU.  This move had been signaled in the electoral campaign that brought him to power.  He had flagged that saying: “Now we have to reassess our associations and go back to those that have moulded the character of the nations in the western style of democracy, the British style of democracy and the British system. That’s the kind of democracy that we’re trying to emulate in the Pacific region”

Strategic Corruption

Federated States of Micronesia’s outgoing President, David Panuelo, ignited a firestorm with his letter detailing corruption in the bilateral relationship with Beijing.  On March 9, 2023, two days after losing his re-election bid for his country’s presidency, Panuelo published a 13-page letter detailing Beijing’s attempts to influence his country and the Pacific more broadly.  His charges ranged from Chinese senior diplomats haranguing government officials to the point where they had to change their phone numbers, offering gifts and other inducements to sitting elected officials, conducting surveillance on him, dishonestly representing meeting outcomes as consensus agreements when no such consensus had been reached, and surreptitiously funding separatist campaigns in Micronesia.  As a parting shot, Panuelo detailed discussions he had had with the Republic of China, including an injection of million into the Federated States of Micronesia’s trust fund, to switch recognition to Taipei.  As a lame duck, the proposed switch is unlikely to succeed, but it does raise pressure on his successor.

Panuelo’s letter stands out as the most serious set of allegations ever lodged against the People’s Republic of China by a sitting Pacific Islands leader.  They also serve as a reminder what has transpired elsewhere in the region involving Beijing.

Claims of bribery and corruption have bounced around for some time in the Pacific.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project claims that in 2019 and 2020, law enforcement officers in Palau deported hundreds of mostly Chinese employed in illegal online gambling operations.  According to reports, the criminal enterprise had links both the Palauan politicians as well as Communist Party officials in China.  According to one analyst, Jason Tower from the United States Institute of Peace, Chinese criminal actors “… protect themselves from law enforcement and from political campaigns in China…” by having close relationships and doing the bidding of Chinese political actors.

Chinese citizens, travelling on Marshall Islands passports, Cary Yan and Gina Zhou bribed Marshall Islands politicians and others to establish the Rongelap Atoll special trade zone.  The edge of that atoll lays roughly 50 miles from Kwajelan Atoll.  The Marshall Islands Journal reports that financial accountability by the Rongelap Atoll Local Government has been called deficient by the Public Accounts Committee of the Nitijela, the Marshallese legislature.

The failed effort by Yan and Zhou raises many questions.

They led an NGO, the World Organization for Governance and Competitiveness.  That organization had United Nations recognition and hosted high profile events that attracted the likes of Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.  The NGO leadership also had several meetings with Pacific Island leaders, such as President Taneti Maamau of Kiribati around the time that Kiribati switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing.  In addition, the NGO also focused on Central American states that recognized Taiwan, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — El Salvador switched to the PRC in 2018, Honduras says it will switch this year, leaving only Guatemala.

Yan and Zhou were deported from Thailand and each pled guilty in conspiring to violate the anti-bribery provisions of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

While never being found guilty of working for the Beijing government, they did promote the one China policy, and their efforts appeared to often focus on countries that recognize Taiwan.

In 2019, for example, Kiribati and Solomon Islands shifted recognition from Taipei to Beijing.  Former Kiribati President Anote Tong suspected his successor of making secret deals with the Peoples Republic of China.  Similarly, in the run up to the 2019 switch in recognizing Beijing by Solomon Islands claims by the then Premier of Malaita, Daniel Suidani that Beijing had offered over 0,000 for his support.  Suidani recently lost a confidence vote that saw his ouster.  His advisors accused the government in Honiara doing Beijing’s bidding in orchestrating Suidani’s downfall.

Biden’s Diplomacy

Against this backdrop the Biden administration launched its Policy for the Pacific Islands, hosted Pacific Island leaders for a two-day summit in Washington and signaled the importance of the Pacific.  Western donor nations have coalesced around the Partners for the Blue Pacific.  Its goal is to Partners for the Blue Pacific promote deconfliction, coordination and cooperation among development donors.  In late January 2023, an inaugural meeting of the Partners of the Blue Pacific was held, in Hawaii focusing on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.  In attendance were representatives from member countries, as well as officials from the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, the Pacific Fusion Centre, and Pacific Island countries.  Finally, the United States has returned and opened a new embassy in Honiara, having been closed since 1993.  Other embassies are planned for Tonga, Kiribati and Vanuatu.

There is reason to have a fleeting sense of optimism.  Beijing’s attempt to get regional-wide acceptance for Beijing’s influence fell flat.  Fiji turned its back on China’s policing agreement.  China’s use of strategic corruption has been shown the light of day.  And Western donor nations have rallied to the Partners of the Blue Pacific.

Why is such optimism fleeting?

While Beijing has been knocked back in a few places, their interests continue to press forward in Solomon Islands.  The delayed elections in Solomon Islands will not take place until after the November 2023 Pacific Games being hosted in Honiara.  Prime Minister Sogavare and his Chinese supporters have had a long time to erode support for the opposition.  The recent ousting of Premier Suidani in Malaitia illustrates the point.

In Kiribati a Chinese team visited Kanton airfield on March 19, 2023 as part of a feasibility study requested by the government in Tarawa.  Concern has been expressed for some time about Chinese intentions to develop the World War II era airstrip built by the United States.  The arrival of engineers preparing a feasibility study signals a shift towards implementation of plans.

The promotion of Chinese Ambassador Qian Bo from the embassy in Fiji to the role as Pacific Coordinator signals Beijing’s awareness of their regional shortcomings.  Ambassador Qian recently met with the director general of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), Leonard Louma, to discuss a security and development agreement.  The range of issues discussed included trade expositions in both China and in MSG countries, renovation of the MSG Secretariat Building, and improved visa access to China.

While the United States, allies and partners, can feel encouraged about their outreach efforts to the Pacific, it does not mean that they can relax.  In a recent speech in Sydney, Samoa Prime Minister Fiamē said:

I feel I need to be very frank… that in the Pacific, we feel our partners have fallen short of acknowledging the integrity of Pacific leadership, and the responsibility they carry for every decision made as a collective, and individually, in order to garner support for the sustainable development of our nations. Such acknowledgments can simply be in the form of information sharing, and open consultation if we consider ourselves as a Pacific family, and looking to find solutions in the Pacific way.

The final concern originates not in the Pacific, nor Beijing, but in Washington.  The willingness to engage the Pacific on its terms and to be an effective partner must be recognized in both the executive and legislative branches.  For example, while the new embassies in Solomon Islands, Tonga, Kiribati and Vanuatu are excellent steps to engage more deeply in the region, they must come with programming that makes local sense.  To date, that programming has not been articulate or funded.

The United States is at a pivot point. Having pushed back against the Peoples Republic of China, and having made solid steps to engage across the region, the challenge is now to keep the gains made and build towards winning new ones.

partners of the blue pacific