Being a Better Partner in the Pacific


The Dec. 20 eruption of the volcano Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai in the Kingdom of Tonga focused global attention on this tiny, fragile Pacific Island country. Tonga’s water and food supplies were disrupted and its undersea internet cable was cut. In one explosive moment, life in Tonga was dramatically altered. All Pacific Island countries face natural and human security threats. At the moment, U.S. engagement among these countries is uneven at best.

U.S. Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell recently grabbed attention by saying that the United States may soon face a “strategic surprise” in the Pacific. He appears to have had in mind agreements and basing arrangements between Pacific Island countries and China. Campbell went on to say that the United States has not done enough to engage with the island countries, while Australia and New Zealand have done plenty. He called on the United States to “substantially up our game” and said he looked “to Australia to lead.” The seven-decade-long alliance between Australia and the United States has seen profound changes with the addition of AUKUS. The Pacific presents another set of challenges for the alliance, which are important both for the alliance itself and in the broader context of strategic competition. Failure to effectively manage these new challenges will have profound repercussions for both the United States and Australia.



Two related questions emerge — how can the United States raise its game among the Pacific Island countries, while at the same time building on the foundations laid by its long-time ally, Australia?

The Biden administration has an opportunity to build on the steps taken by the previous administration and deepen U.S. engagement in the Pacific. Improving U.S. engagement with these fragile island states, while enhancing collaboration with Australia as a key regional ally, will serve as proof positive that the United States is able to successfully shift its strategic focus to the Indo-Pacific. Failure to effectively improve U.S. regional involvement in Oceania will be a failure of American will, with broader implications. An essential element to U.S. engagement is a durable strategy uniquely aligned to the needs of the small Pacific Island states.

Over the past decade, two issues — climate change and strategic competition — have animated American interest in the Pacific, the latter the more significantly. U.S. Pacific Island strategy should be informed by the Pacific Islands Forum Boe Declaration, which endorses a commitment to the rules-based international order and upholds the right of member countries to conduct their “national affairs free of external interference and coercion.” Importantly, the declaration also promotes both a traditional and non-traditional view of security, emphasizing human, environmental, and cybersecurity as well as concern over transnational crime. These are the areas in which the United States can most productively collaborate with Australia to enhance security among the Pacific Island countries.

Whether the United States can sustain and deepen security cooperation remains an open question. The perennial competition for budgets and the power and influence of Department of Defense may challenge America’s capacity to be an effective partner in addressing regional needs. Pacific Islanders like Meg Taylor, the former secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum, have voiced concern that American interest in their region is driven purely by an anti-China perspective. Furthermore, she warns against a transactional approach to relationships. The call for partnerships has a long history — consider the words of the late Peter Tali Coleman, governor of American Samoa and the longest serving governor of any U.S. territory or state, when he said, “Come, let us build for the future in partnership.”

China’s apparent desire to expand its military capability among the Pacific Islands has raised concerns in both Australia and the United States. China has announced plans to improve an airfield on the coral atoll of Katon in Kiribati, which is roughly 3000 kilometers from Oahu and lies near the sea lanes connecting Hawaii with Australia and New Zealand. Elsewhere, China has completed work on improving Momote Airport on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, which is the closest airfield to Lombrum Naval Base. Australia, the United States, and Papua New Guinea are collaborating on upgrading Lombrum, originally built by the U.S. Navy in World War II and rivaling Pearl Harbor in size and capacity. China has also reportedly sought basing opportunities in Vanuatu and Tulagi in the Solomon Islands. While these efforts ultimately proved unsuccessful, U.S. officials clearly remain worried. Beyond basing rights, China could well seek to emulate American Pacific arrangements and negotiate its own compact of free association with, for example, Kiribati.

Letting an Ally Lead

Some might wonder why Campbell would suggest that the United States should play junior partner to Australia. After all, America has extensive bases in the North Pacific and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command is headquartered in Honolulu. The challenge that Campbell has in mind is not in the North Pacific, however, but in the south where most of the Pacific Islands lie. Across the Pacific, Australia leads the globe in development assistance, followed by New Zealand. According to the Lowy Institute, the top five donors of overseas development assistance to all Pacific Island countries in 2019 (the most recent data available) were Australia at $864 million, New Zealand at $254 million, Japan at $179 million, China at $169 million, and the United States at $140 million. Overseas development assistance plays a vital role in these small island states, which are amongst the most aid-dependent countries in the world. Australia’s diplomatic presence in the region outstrips that of all other countries, with 19 embassies among the Pacific Island nations. By comparison, the United States has embassies in just six of them, three of which are in the North Pacific. Where America has the greatest, albeit subjective, potential is in the allure of its soft power.

Australia has manifest strengths in the region. So, how can the United States improve its engagement in the Pacific and work with its capable ally?

The Trump administration had already made inroads on raising U.S. engagement in the Pacific. Its declassified U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific links competition with China and U.S. Pacific Islands policy, calling for the United States to “Ensure the Pacific Islands (e.g., the U.S. territories, the Freely Associated States, the Melanesian and the Polynesian states,) remain aligned with the United States.”

Free association maintains the sovereignty of these island states but gives the United States the task of their defense, while denying any other state the right of military access, in exchange for financial support of the islands for a defined period of time following negotiations and U.S. Congressional approval. Funding for the Micronesian and Marshallese compacts will expire in 2023, along with Palau’s in 2024. The Trump administration sought to renew funding for all three compacts, and the three island leaders met briefly with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office on May 21, 2019. They also went to Capitol Hill, where legislators promised speedy passage of any new compact funding. Negotiations for renewed funding have since become bogged down amid COVID-19 travel restrictions and the 2020 U.S. election. In September 2019, the United States also announced $65 million of new funding in the Pacific Pledge, focusing on enhancing resilience to environmental challenges, building resilient infrastructure and expanding connectivity, enhancing good governance, enhancing maritime security, and building cyber capacity.

At the same time, the Trump administration also cancelled U.S. involvement in the Paris Agreement on climate change. The Paris agreement had broadly been seen as a victory for Pacific Island diplomacy, and the U.S. withdrawal was met with disappointment. Tuvalu’s prime minister, Enele Sopoaga, said, “We are very, very distressed,” and Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, said that the “loss of America’s leadership was unfortunate.”

Climate change threatens American islands just as much as it threatens Tuvalu and Fiji, and recognizing this is an essential step to creating a lasting Pacific Island strategy. The same can be said of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. For many Pacific Island countries, fishing represents their main source of income — 75 percent in Kiribati, for example. Such fishing results in Pacific Island countries losing an estimated 12 percent of their prized tuna catch.

The United States shares a destiny with the other Pacific Island countries through the state of Hawaii, the territories of Guam and American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas. It is this shared destiny that should keep the United States engaged well beyond strategic competition. Yet, strategic competition creates even greater urgency as the United States embraces a free and open Indo-Pacific. Once again, America has an interest in maintaining the international rules-based order as much as the Pacific Island countries do. In embracing America’s Pacific Island identity, U.S. policymakers should listen to American Pacific Island voices, giving greater durability to American involvement with the Pacific Islands.

There are five steps that the United States should take to improve security cooperation. First, it should continue to adapt Pacific Deterrence Initiative projects to better align with the realities of the Pacific Island countries. Second, Washington should move forward on funding the compacts of free association with Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands. Third, Congress should legislate for deeper and more reliable cooperation and collaboration with allies and partners regarding the Pacific Island states. Fourth, Congress should embrace the language for interagency working groups found in the Maritime SAFE Act and incorporate that into other non-traditional security cooperation legislation. Finally, the United States should improve the management of these policies and legislation through the appointment of a Pacific coordinator.

Sending the Pacific Deterrence Initiative South

In its original form, the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021, was designed to

enhance budgetary transparency and oversight, and focus resources on key military capabilities to deter China. The initiative will also reassure U.S. allies and partners, and send a strong signal to the Chinese Communist Party that the American people are committed to defending U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific.

The lion’s share of Pacific Deterrence Initiative funds will be used in the North Pacific, especially in Guam. A small portion of the funds, however, should be used to build traditional and non-traditional security cooperation, in particular to build and improve infrastructure in the islands where the United States could anticipate deploying forces. Harbor facilities throughout the region should be examined for upgrading to provide berthing for U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels, for example. Serious consideration should be given to negotiating with Papua New Guinea to create Coast Guard facilities at either Lae or Madang. Equally, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command should identify where airfields could be improved, as in the example of Baucau Airfield in Timor-Leste.

Pacific Deterrence Initiative funds should also be used for forward positioning of defense material. These efforts would both expand the capacity of the U.S. military to operate in the region and, importantly, invest in employment among the islands. The numbers employed need not be large to have an impact in these small, aid-dependent states. While most Pacific Island countries do not have militaries, the United States should as a matter of urgency complete the suite of status-of-forces agreements with the remaining regional nations to allow for the potential of visits by U.S. forces.

On Congress’ To-Do List

A second task should be completing the negotiations and passing the funding for the compacts of free association. The compacts came into being as part of the decolonization process following World War II, when the United States administered the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands that included the Marianas, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau. The Marianas elected to become a commonwealth with the United States, whereas the others opted for sovereignty. Compact funding for the Marshall Islands and Micronesia was renewed in 2003 for a twenty-year period. Palau’s compact funding was negotiated in 2010, though Congress did not appropriate funds until 2016, and it will expire in 2024.

The Biden administration is yet to make significant advances on these negotiations. Several missing building blocks need to be restored to move forward. A simple yet important step would be the timely nomination of an Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Insular Affairs, who is largely responsible for the three freely associated nations. A more complex building block is trust, which has been eroded over the years by remaining issues around compensation for nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands. Trust was further damaged when the United States removed Medicaid coverage from the Marshallese with the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act in 1996. The compact had originally promised to provide access to healthcare, but it took roughly a decade from the first introduction of legislation by then-Rep. Mazie Hirono to restore access to Medicaid for the Marshallese. Swift and meaningful action in negotiating the new funding agreements by the Biden administration could go a long way toward securing the financial future of the compact states, as well as repairing trust.

The United States also needs to deepen its work with allies and partners with an interest in development assistance in the Pacific. Congress has before it two pieces of legislation, the Boosting Long-Term Engagement in the Pacific Act (or the BLUE Pacific Act) and the Honoring Oceania Act, both of which promote greater cooperation with partners in the Pacific.

The BLUE Pacific Act envisions cooperation with Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and Taiwan to deescalate conflict in the region, safeguard Pacific populations, and ensure complementarity of programing. The Honoring Oceania Act calls on

Australia, France, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, and the United Kingdom to advance shared alliance goals of the Oceania region concerning health, environmental protection, disaster resilience and preparedness, illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (commonly referred to as ‘IUU fishing’), maritime security, and economic development.

In some ways, the act merely codifies what is already taking place in practice. The United States has partnered with Australia, Japan, and New Zealand in the electrification of Papua New Guinea, and Australia, Japan, and the United States have laid new high-speed internet cables for Kiribati, Micronesia, Nauru, and Palau.

American work on traditional and non-traditional security cooperation requires coordination across a disparate number of agencies and authorizations. The federal government deals with issues that cross organizational boundaries via an interagency working group, more often than not ad hoc in nature. The Maritime SAFE Act envisions the challenges of addressing illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing and mandates the structure and composition of an interagency working group. This approach to interagency working groups should be used in promoting U.S. work on non-traditional security threats. Congress should amend the Honoring Oceania Act to incorporate specific instructions, drawn from the Maritime SAFE Act, on how the United States can align and coordinate programs and resources.

Point Person Needed

A fifth recommendation is that a coordinator for U.S. Pacific Island policy be appointed. The coordinator should work to orchestrate and align policy across the administration, with Congress, and internationally. The Trump administration had a National Security Council staff member covering Oceania (Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, and Antarctica), but this position is too junior to undertake the tasks at hand. The coordinator should be appointed at the level of ambassador-at-large, report directly to the White House, and have deep experience in U.S. government service. This suggestion goes beyond that made in a bipartisan Congressional letter of June 29, 2021, which merely called for a senior official to lead negotiations over compact renewal, instead calling for a senior official who will work, both domestically and internationally, at integrating policy across the Pacific.

Taken together, these five steps would make significant advances in U.S. engagement and involvement in the Pacific Islands. By creating a strategy predicated on durable engagement, the United States would position itself in the region with a rationale inclusive of strategic competition but also stretching to areas of non-traditional security concerns.



Alan Tidwell is professor of the practice and director of the Center for Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Studies at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University.

Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Mathew Diendorf