What does the United States need in its South Pacific strategy?
By Sean Jacobs
US Vice President Kamala Harris’ recent remarks to Pacific Island leaders they have not previously “received the diplomatic attention and support you deserve” has acknowledged a key gap in US foreign policy – a consistent, comprehensive South Pacific presence.
Her remarks, delivered to the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), and emerging only weeks after Secretary of State Blinken’s regional visit, are certainly welcomed. It had been almost four decades since a US Secretary of State visited Suva, Fiji’s capital, and over a decade since Secretary of State Clinton visited the Cook Islands and the South Pacific’s largest nation – Papua New Guinea (PNG).
Ostensibly to counter China’s re-energised economic and security support to South Pacific states, both Harris’ remarks and Blinken’s presence have served as a reminder of US intentions for “authentic engagement that speaks to the real needs of the islanders,” according to Blinken, and for the “US to include on the agenda items that Pacific countries have identified as priorities for them.”
Against the backdrop of a renewed commitment to a rules-based international order, the US is sending the right signals to both counter and put pressure on Beijing. An announcement of a “national strategy on the Pacific Islands”, expected in the wake of Harris’ address, is also welcomed. Missing, however, has been the combination of US regional presence and action.
A competitive South Pacific plan of action
Remarks, much like regional diplomatic visits, are only one such toolkit of statecraft. If not framed by a plan of action, momentum will drift. This has visibly occurred since Hilary Clinton declared the South Pacific “strategically and economically vital” over ten years ago and since the Obama administration came to office declaring “The United States is a Pacific Power.”
Since this time, China has upped its South Pacific game – establishing comprehensive strategic partnerships, providing increased in-kind military assistance, signing up multiple nations to its landmark Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and elevating itself to the region’s second largest aid donor behind Australia.
The US can be more ‘consistent’ in terms of reopening its Solomon Islands Embassy, which was closed in 1993, and by expanding its consular presence in Kiribati and Tonga – commitments confirmed by Harris. But it can also perform more intensively in regional South Pacific organisations such as the PIF and by enhancing American cultural, economic and security participation across government and non-government sectors. This is particularly important in the region, and where American prestige and soft power remains.
The US can also be more ‘comprehensive’ in the South Pacific in terms of delivering creative forms of US assistance across these sectors, working more closely with key partners Australia and New Zealand, placing a higher premium on project delivery – as is the case with Chinese assistance – and creating stronger interdependence between the mainland US and the 14 South Pacific nations.
United States in the region
From nineteenth century Yankee Whalers to World War Two, the US has enduring South Pacific relationships and interests dating back at least two centuries. Even in 1825, as part of President John Adams’ State of the Nation, Adams spoke of the Pacific Islands in the same way as some US leaders do today – its potential for “flourishing commerce and fishery” but also its “rare exploration... by public ships.”
In more contemporary times the South Pacific is generally understood by US policymakers, elected officials and military personnel by two elements. First, by World War Two and the immense US sacrifices in the Pacific theatre. The Battle of the Coral Sea, Guadalcanal, Midway – these places continue to evoke vital battles from 1942 to 1945 that helped turn the tide against Japanese forces and secure allied victory. When the US remembers the Second World War it, in part, remembers the South Pacific.
Second, US policymakers typically see the Pacific Islands as its three US Pacific Territories – the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, American Samoa – and the Compacts of Free Association (COFA) states of Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, and Palau. The wider Pacific islands, however, comprise 15 other Pacific Island states. While not entirely absent from Washington’s focus, these other Pacific nations do not share the same politico-legal links to the mainland US. Therefore, while the US undertakes significant forms of assistance to its Territories and COFA states, the wider South Pacific tends to escape US political, diplomatic, civil, military and fiscal attention.
A region ‘overlooked’?
The immediate result is a US regional awareness of the South Pacific but – in frank terms – not an awareness of high strategic importance. This has been particularly observable since World War Two. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower perceived the South Pacific to be part of an “American lake.” However, throughout the Cold War, the region tended to disappear from strategic radars, with the Soviet Union’s efforts concentrating elsewhere. At the end of the Cold War, in 1993, as the US closed its Solomon Islands Embassy, it credentialed its ambassadors to cover multiple nations across the region.
Since this time the US has also relied upon allies Australia and New Zealand for regional engagement. President George W. Bush’s 2003 comments that Australia was a regional “deputy sheriff” – while lampooned – at least captured the decades-long and consistent sentiment of US strategic policymakers – if Australia was regionally active, then the US need not be so.
Rhetorically, US leaders, from President Obama through to President Biden, speak of the region’s importance and the need for strategic focus. By contrast, however, many regional commentators have spoken of US “strategic neglect.” As well-captured by a 2016 Congressional subcommittee report, the Pacific Island Region is “perhaps the most overlooked region of the Asia-Pacific.” While the US has provided over $200 million per annum to the Pacific Islands, across a range of sectors, it is an observation that remains current and clearly reflected in Harris’ statement.
Indeed, Harris’ concession is particularly noticeable when contrasted with China’s more recent up-tempo South Pacific efforts. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent regional tour, while unable to secure a region-wide security commitment, rested upon over a decade of Chinese assertiveness.
- Eight countries in the region are Beijing’s ‘comprehensive strategic partners’, which is China's highest diplomatic partnership classification.
- For the past decade, China has tracked as the second-largest donor in the Pacific.
- China has signed BRI cooperation agreements with ten Pacific Island countries and it now “sees the region as a critical air freight hub in its so-called Air Silk Road, which connects Asia with Central and South America.”
- Beijing has backed, funded and even constructed dozens of ‘hard infrastructure’ projects in multiple Pacific nations – the Solomon Islands (national sporting stadium), Samoa (national aquatic centre), PNG (highways, national data centre), Fiji (bridges, aquatic centre, sporting infrastructure and a hydroelectric dam).
- President Xi Jinping has conducted two regional visits in 2014 and 2018.
- Only four Pacific countries now maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan – the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu.
Beijing’s expanded reception can be attributed to two separate but related elements – immediate funding availability and expedited delivery. Immediate funding is clearly appealing for many Pacific leaders, especially when weighed against the long-termism of good governance, transparency and accountability – pillars of US and Australian forms of assistance, which can be perceived as tedious. “It may be that our politicians are thinking that it’s easier to deal with China in terms of implementing things on the ground quickly,” notes one Solomon Islands analyst, “in comparison to other donors that have been in the Solomons for a long time yet have been very slow.”
Beijing, by being ‘easier to deal with’, also implies a level of oversight and accountability that can lay an easy path to corruption, bribery and other forms of inducement. It has been reported extensively, for example, that in 2021 Beijing offered $USD31,000 in cash – through a local development fund – to each Solomon Islands Member of Parliament to alter their stance on Taiwan. In the words of former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, liberal democracies like Australia, despite spending over $AUD 2.6 billion for the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), simply cannot “offer the kind of ‘aid’ China gives to politicians.”
China’s assistance is also not just a question of funds but of speed. Perhaps the most symbolic example of where Beijing’s approach clearly outpaces US and Australian efforts, at least in the short run, has been at PNG’s Lombrum Naval Base at Manus Province. The trilateral U.S.-Australia-PNG commitment to upgrade the base – signed at APEC 2018 by US Vice President Pence – was seen as a landmark security deal. Done right, the base has the capacity to serve as a ‘Guam-lite’. As the US Naval War College’s Andrew Erickson points out, the need for American Pacific bases is increasing as “China’s militarisation of outposts” also grows. However, four years later, there has been little progress. Meanwhile, a Beijing-subsidiary company assisted in delivering a full upgrade to the province’s airport – a mere twenty-minute drive away.
Learning from Beijing’s shortfalls
While Beijing’s techniques appear influential, it’s worth acknowledging its South Pacific endeavours have also had their setbacks.
An important analysis by former Australian High Commissioner to PNG, Ian Kemish, noted that Beijing’s advances into PNG over the past four years had actually been “surprisingly slow”, citing the PNG government’s refusal to extend mining leases and stiff anti-Chinese sentiment within PNG’s social media circles.
Other analysis by the University of Tasmania’s Richard Herr has also highlighted that China’s influence in the region is driven largely by its economic heft over its soft power reception. “China’s primary influence remains largely transactional,” notes Herr, while the “Chinese political system, economy or culture aren’t (yet) seen as compelling models to be emulated by Pacific Islanders.”
It is also not clear whether Beijing is attaching its South Pacific activities to any framework of coherence. Or that its activities may in fact be driven by a sense of anxiety. Using recent events in the Solomon Islands as an example, Council on Foreign Relations analyst Zongyuan Zoe Liu notes that “The China-Solomon Islands security pact is likely driven by the Chinese government’s sense of vulnerability in the region rather than by a Chinese grand strategy.”
While these observations may offer a sense of respite, they should not promote complacency. If assessed properly, and weighed against existing US capabilities, Beijing’s setbacks can be used to create a more comprehensive US regional plan of action.
Toward a firmer US South Pacific presence
US assistance to the Pacific Islands amounts to over $200 million, which is an increase from $140 million in 2019. The latest assistance package announced by Harris include a further $US60 million per year, over the next decade, for “ocean resiliency.” The range of pre-existing measures is comprehensive, covering economic, agricultural, fisheries and disaster recovery sectors. A continuation of these measures will be important. However, the US will also need to consider constantly applying its core tools of statecraft – or ‘building blocks’ – to the region’s emerging challenges.
The first is legislative. The US Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI), established under the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, increases military investment across a range of domains and has an obvious regional focus for the Pacific. “The PDI is intended to reassure allies and partners across the region of the depth of the US’s commitment,” writes former US Ambassador to the Pacific C. Steven McGann. “Most importantly, the congressional legislation underpinning a shift in resources compels action by future US administrations.”
Importantly, underpinning the PDI is the BLUE Act, a bipartisan commitment to “appropriate supplementary funding for diplomatic and civilian agencies that would augment the PDI,” according to McGann. With a focus on capacity building, economic development, climate change and addressing other vulnerabilities, the Act has the potential to instigate a strong US ‘ground game’ in the region.
The civil-military element to this assistance, through the Hawaiian presence of US Indo-Pacific Command, offers a particularly unique platform. The Pacific Partnerships mission, which has treated a staggering 270,000-plus Pacific Islanders across the region over the past decade, and delivered over 200 infrastructure development projects, offers an off-the-shelf model to ‘resource up’. It could also help service Covid-19 vaccinations in the South Pacific’s many harder to reach places.
The second US building block is a strategic advantage where it ultimately counts the most – among people. Indeed, while appearing productive, there is a wariness of Beijing’s intentions in the region – Beijing-built facilities not built to last, for example, or acknowledgement among locals that short-term intent is behind Beijing’s actions. “Papua New Guinean officials certainly like to have a number of countries bidding for their attention,” observes regional cyber expert Robert Potter, “but Melanesian culture does not take kindly to violations of respectful protocol by apoplectic wolf warriors.”
It is a regionally instructive example, and one that points to the comparative amount of goodwill for US personnel in the Pacific and the values that America can continue to stand for. Indeed, it is a strategic ‘soft power’ reservoir that has never been entirely tapped, at least not at any significant scale or since World War Two.
The third building block relates to a certain under-deployed US political presence in the region, and a need to play a more active role in the region’s political forums and architecture. Harris noted a ‘diplomatic’ deficit to US engagement. However, it must also be acknowledged there is also a ‘political’ deficit at play. China’s regional activities, for example, are notable not only for their monetary value but their political emphasis. The US can think in the same terms. The PIF, which offers one mechanism, is under pressure from fracturing, driven by a political rift from the Micronesian states. It also offers an opening for strong US political participation, with Harris’ PIF address a confident first step that could help nudge political elements into place. This is provided this form of engagement is kept up.
All three US building blocks point to not just political will but a need to think creatively about applying American prestige and power – for the US to punch at its weight – in a theatre where it has never been fully operationalised. Here the US may be surprised, while also addressing small victories in its race against Beijing.
The great Cold War strategist George Kennan, writing in Realities of American Foreign Policy, noted that the “task of international politics is not to inhibit change but to find means to permit change to proceed without repeatedly shaking the peace of the world.”
It can be a helpful way to frame and guide the United States’ contemporary activities in the South Pacific, especially while the US is in direct competition with China. The US clearly does not wish to ‘shake the peace’ of the South Pacific. Indeed, the rhetoric recently used by Blinken sets a positive tone to build upon – seeking authentic engagement, speaking to the real needs of Islanders and encouraging agenda items that are critically important to Pacific people.
The US clearly has the legal, political and soft power tools to expand its influence in the South Pacific. Reopening the US Embassy in the Solomon Islands, creating firmer links with Tonga and Kiribati, and even announcing a Pacific Islands strategy, are important steps to focus these tools and realise further goals. However, it will be the job of present and future administrations – beyond Harris and Biden – to join these capabilities to a consistent, comprehensive South Pacific presence.
 Joe Kelly and Adam Creighton, “US hasn’t given Pacific the support it deserved, Kamala Harris tells forum,” The Australian, July 13, 2022, https://www.theaustralian.com.au/nation/us-launches-its-mission-pacific-with-aid-diplomacy/news-story/b5674f5e07d98e2677820679f5dfabdc.
 Kalinga Seneviratne, “South Pacific: US Announce New South Pacific Strategy to Counter China,” In Depth News, February 17, 2022, https://www.indepthnews.net/index.php/the-world/asia-pacific/5089-south-pacific-us-announce-new-south-pacific-strategy-to-counter-china.
 See, for example, Anthony J. Blinken, “The Administration’s Approach to the People’s Republic of China,” US Embassies and Consulates in Australia, May 27, 2022, https://au.usembassy.gov/secretary-blinken-speech-the-administrations-approach-to-the-peoples-republic-of-china/.
 Kelly and Creighton, “US hasn’t given Pacific the support it deserved, Kamala Harris tells forum.”
 Charles Edel, “Small dots, large strategic areas: US interests in the South Pacific,” Lowy Institute, April 3, 2018. https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/small-dots-large-strategic-areas-us-interests-south-pacific.
 C. Steven McGann, “Roles and Strategies,” Asia Society, https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwiXwZ_vq-r4AhXdnNgFHWE2AQ8QFnoECAYQAQ&url=https%3A%2F%2Fasiasociety.org%2Ffiles%2Fpdf%2F101005_mcgann_asdc.pdf&usg=AOvVaw0ET_wXhHgiAchruRj7vz35.
 Kelly and Creighton, “US hasn’t given Pacific the support it deserved, Kamala Harris tells forum.”
 John Quincy Adams, “First State of the Nation,” December 6, 1825, American History, http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/presidents/john-quincy-adams/state-of-the-nation-1825.php.
 The Cook Islands, Fiji, French Polynesia, Kiribati, Micronesia, Nauru, New Caledonia, Niue, Palau, PNG, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu.
 Michael Walsh, “The US does more in the Pacific than it gives itself credit for,” The Interpreter, July 9, 2019,
 According to one observation from 1988, the Soviet Union did show “new political as well as economic interest in penetrating the South Pacific region” however it is not clear to what depth this occurred. See Langdon, Frank C. "Challenges to the United States in the South Pacific." Pacific Affairs (1988): 7.
 “Bush's 'sheriff' comment causes a stir,” Sydney Morning Herald, October 17, 2003. https://www.theage.com.au/national/bushs-sheriff-comment-causes-a-stir-20031017-gdwk74.html.
 Joanne Wallis, “Crowded and complex: The changing geopolitics of the South Pacific,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute, April 24, 2017, https://www.aspi.org.au/report/crowded-and-complex-changing-geopolitics-south-pacific.
 These are the words used by Rep. Matt Salmon, Chair of the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific. See “U.S. Policy in the Pacific: The Struggle to Maintain Influence,” Committee on Foreign Affairs House of Representatives, One Hundred Fourteenth Congress (Second Session), June 23, 2016, https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CHRG-114hhrg20532/html/CHRG-114hhrg20532.htm.
 “U.S. Engagement in the Pacific Islands: 2020 Pacific Pledge,” US State Department, October 1, 2020, https://2017-2021.state.gov/u-s-engagement-in-the-pacific-islands-2020-pacific-pledge/index.html.
 Zongyuan Zoe Liu, “What the China-Solomon Islands Pact Means for the U.S. and South Pacific,” Council on Foreign Relations, 4 May 2022,
 Simone McCarthy, “Why the sparsely-populated South Pacific islands have become the next US-China contest,” CNN, June 6, 2022. https://edition.cnn.com/2022/06/06/asia/china-pacific-islands-wang-yi-intl-hnk/index.html.
 Ben Packham, Chinese money used to sway MP votes for Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare ,” The Australian, December 6, 2021, https://www.theaustralian.com.au/world/chinese-money-used-to-sway-mp-votes-for-solomon-islands-prime-minister-manasseh-sogavare/news-story/dd003f3f2b518c305ef10bf4c89f1b70.
 “Australia’s Costly $2.6 Billion Investment In Solomon Islands,” Lowy Institute, n.d., https://www.lowyinstitute.org/australia%E2%80%99s-costly-26-billion-investment-solomon-islands#:~:text=However%2C%20a%20decade%20later%2C%20at,said%20author%20Jenny%20Hayward%2DJones.
 Alexander Downer, “New Aussie rules: Conservative values have fallen out of fashion,” The Spectator, May 14, 2022, https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/new-aussie-rules-conservative-values-have-fallen-out-of-fashion
 “APEC 2018: Mike Pence announces US-Australia military pact to expand PNG naval base,” SBS News, November 17, 2018. https://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/apec-2018-mike-pence-announces-us-australia-military-pact-to-expand-png-naval-base/sruf6icyl.
 Edel, “Small dots, large strategic areas: US interests in the South Pacific.”
 “A Chinese-built airport next door to a key Australia-US naval base?,” Lowy Institute, August 7, 2020, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/chinese-built-airport-next-door-australia-us-funded-navy-port.
 Ian Kemish, “China’s push into PNG has been surprisingly slow and ineffective. Why has Beijing found the going so tough?,” The Conversation, July 3, 2020, https://theconversation.com/chinas-push-into-png-has-been-surprisingly-slow-and-ineffective-why-has-beijing-found-the-going-so-tough-140073.
 Richard Herr, “The role of soft power in China’s influence in the Pacific islands,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute, April 20, 2019, https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/the-role-of-soft-power-in-chinas-influence-in-the-pacific-islands/.
 Ibid, 31.
 Liu, “What the China-Solomon Islands Pact Means for the U.S. and South Pacific.”
 “U.S. Engagement in the Pacific Islands: 2020 Pacific Pledge.”
 Kelly and Creighton, “US hasn’t given Pacific the support it deserved, Kamala Harris tells forum.”
 C. Steven McGann, “How the US can build cooperation in the Pacific,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute, October 27, 2020. https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/how-the-us-can-build-cooperation-in-the-pacific/.
 Robert Potter, “Papua New Guinea and China’s Debt Squeeze,” The Diplomat, February 2, 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2021/02/papua-new-guinea-and-chinas-debt-squeeze/.
 George Kennan, Realities of American Foreign Policy, Norton & Company, New York, 1966, 35-36.