Blinken says US has a ‘long-term future’ in the Pacific islands
By Edward Wong and Damien Cave
As the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Fiji in 36 years, Antony Blinken wanted to make clear that jetting there to meet with Pacific island leaders was just the start of an expanding U.S. presence.
“We see our long-term future in the Indo-Pacific,” Blinken said at a news conference Saturday night, standing next to Fiji’s acting leader. “It’s as simple and basic as that.”
Blinken said the United States would soon open an embassy in another Pacific nation, the Solomon Islands. He pledged more U.S. help on climate change, COVID-19 vaccines and illegal fishing, all issues vital to the region.
But at their core, the commitments reflected U.S. concerns about China and an attempt to compete in a sparsely populated but strategically important area where Beijing has been expanding its influence.
Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, the acting prime minister of Fiji, welcomed the renewed U.S. engagement. “America is uniquely positioned to be a direct partner to Fiji for peace and climate security,” he said. “We need American might and its mind as well as pioneering solutions and investments.”
The Pacific island nations are spread across a broad area, between Hawaii, Asia and Australia. They prize their sovereignty and want to be seen as autonomous actors. Yet they, like many other small countries, are becoming increasingly enmeshed in the global competition between the United States and China.
“While there are important differences between Pacific island countries, there is a clear understanding, even if they don’t admit it, that they are caught up in an intensifying geopolitical rivalry,” said Iati Iati, a senior lecturer and Pacific security fellow at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.
The island nations are diverse, but they have common concerns: slowing the sea-level rise that threatens to drown their low-lying lands; preserving the fisheries and ocean resources that bring them food and revenue; containing the spread of COVID-19; and strengthening their own infrastructure, investment and governance.
Fiji was the second stop on Blinken’s weeklong trip across the region, which is meant to signal that the Asia-Pacific is the primary focus of President Joe Biden’s foreign policy.
As he was leaving Australia for Fiji, the White House released an 18-page paper on its so-called Indo-Pacific strategy, emphasizing a need to “shape the strategic environment” in which China operates. That includes promoting democratic institutions and civil society in the region, as well as helping countries “deploy advanced war-fighting capabilities,” according to the document.
The United States has long had an on-and-off presence in the Pacific island chains. U.S. troops built airfields and hospitals while fighting Japan in the region in World War II, but the United States generally receded afterward, especially from South Pacific countries like Fiji.
“The fact is, they have not been present in this space for a long time now,” Sayed-Khaiyum said.
Under President Donald Trump, U.S. officials overseeing Asia policy said they feared China would use the promise of prosperity, as well as coercion, to bring certain islands into their sphere of influence and set up military bases in the region, following in the footsteps of Japan almost a century ago.
That would block the U.S. military’s ability to island-hop and deploy forces quickly to Asia in the event of war, they said.
Biden administration officials also say they are concerned about China’s military and security plans for the region.
Violent protests broke out in November in the Solomon Islands, where for many years Beijing had cultivated officials with loans, aid and favors, leading to frustration among some provincial leaders about the cozy relationship. Four people were killed during the protests in the capital, Honiara, and many Pacific island countries with a growing Chinese presence worry that tensions could rise elsewhere over what is often called “elite capture” — that is, a power like Beijing essentially buying influence with politicians and business leaders.
U.S. officials, both Republican and Democrat, have expressed concern that one of China’s main ways of gaining leverage in the region is through what they call “debt-trap diplomacy”: lending money after lavishing attention on decision-makers, then issuing demands of governments that struggle to pay it back.
For countries often seen as mere dots on the map, China’s interest has been hard to resist. When Xi Jinping, China’s leader, visited Fiji’s capital in 2014 and addressed many of the region’s leaders, he promised friendship and infrastructure, encouraging them to board “the Chinese express train of development.”
Many did. Large construction projects followed, on roads, port improvements and sports stadiums, much of it linked to heavy debt. In Fiji’s capital, Suva, the bridge to the main market was rebuilt with financing from China’s so-called Belt and Road Initiative. Queen Elizabeth Drive, the coastal thoroughfare that passes major government buildings (and China’s new embassy), is being repaired by a Chinese state-owned engineering firm.
But there are signs of fading enthusiasm. Fiji’s government recently shut down construction of what was to be Suva’s tallest building: the Wanguo Friendship Plaza, an apartment tower being built by a private Chinese company. It is an empty shell; Fiji halted the development over complaints of falling rubble and other problems.
“The honeymoon is over,” said Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
One of the most tangible elements of the U.S. strategy for the Pacific islands involves deploying Coast Guard ships to the region under “shiprider” agreements, which allow local authorities to board U.S. vessels and enforce local and international fishing laws.
The decision to open an embassy in the Solomon Islands also seems driven by concerns about security, as well as about another problem often identified by critics of U.S. engagement in the region: a lack of diplomatic resources.
The U.S. embassies in Fiji and in Australia both lack permanent ambassadors, in part because Republicans in Congress have held up Biden’s appointments. U.S. political dysfunction is widely seen in Asia as hindering U.S. efforts abroad; islanders will watch for how quickly Washington can get an ambassador and a sizable staff to the Solomon Islands, and for how soon Blinken’s visit and promises will lead to measurable results.
“What is really good is that they have now stepped into the space,” Sayed-Khaiyum said after meeting with Blinken. “We know they cannot do that overnight, but there seems to be a very strong philosophical commitment.”