The US is scrambling to step up its diplomatic game with Pacific Island leaders following a breakdown of unity at a regional summit this week that analysts warn could weaken resistance to China’s plans for controversial security alliances.
Vice President Kamala Harris addressed the Pacific Islands Forum on Tuesday, announcing that the US would open embassies in Kiribati and Tonga and appoint its first-ever regional envoy. Washington will triple its annual funding to help the Pacific Island nations combat climate change and illegal fishing to $60 million a year for a decade, she said.
The flurry of announcements followed a decision by Kiribati, a nation of 120,000 people, that it was withdrawing from the PIF — a grouping that normally includes 17 other countries — on the eve of the body’s annual summit this week. The Marshall Islands opted out of the meeting, with its leader saying that he wanted to attend but that his parliament forbade him from participating.
The leaders of Nauru and Cook Islands also didn’t attend, citing domestic political reasons and COVID-19.
For half a century, the forum has relied on strength in numbers to argue globally for the shared concerns — from climate change to nuclear non-proliferation — of what are mostly small nations, plus Australia and New Zealand. But in recent years, the region has increasingly become a theater of geopolitical competition between the West and Beijing, as China has emerged as a top lender: By 2021, it had loaned $1.34 billion to the region, second only to the Asian Development Bank.
Those tensions came to a head earlier this year, when China inked a security pact with the Solomon Islands, sparking fears in Washington and Canberra that it was eyeing a military presence in the Pacific. Beijing then tried to prod all 10 Pacific Island countries that recognize it (and not Taiwan) into signing a regional security agreement during a May visit by Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
Countries pushed back, demanding that China bring the draft deal before the PIF. But the newly fractured forum hobbles the group’s authority to repulse external pressures, according to Peter Kenilorea Jr., an opposition member of parliament in the Solomon Islands and a former UN official who’s critical of his country’s embrace of China.
“Our strength lies in acting together,” said Kenilorea Jr., whose father was the first prime minister of the Solomon Islands after independence in 1978. “The Pacific region must think of its security collectively. Individually, each of us is much weaker.”
Already, Beijing is renovating a World War II airstrip in Kiribati. China and Kiribati have insisted that it will only be used for civilian use. But the opacity of China’s hush-hush security deal with the Solomon Islands has raised questions over Beijing’s true intentions in the region. The details of that pact haven’t been made public — but a leaked draft said it would allow China to send warships to the Pacific Islands region.
Officially, Kiribati’s decision to walk out of the PIF has to do with regional politics rather than a global scramble for influence. The grouping’s top post has traditionally rotated between the three sets of islands in the region: Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia. It was Micronesia’s turn to lead the PIF last year. After voting led to a Polynesian candidate winning, Kiribati and other Micronesian nations — Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Nauru — declared they would quit the organization.
But a meeting last month in Fiji appeared to have quelled that rebellion, with a written commitment that the next leader of the PIF would be Micronesian. For the moment, Kiribati’s refusal to accept that assurance — the reason it has cited for its pullout from the group — is unlikely to trigger an exodus of other nations, said Larissa Stünkel, a research fellow at the Stockholm-based Institute for Security & Development Policy’s China Center. Other Micronesian nations appear satisfied with the agreement they arrived at in June, she said — though the Marshall Islands’ status is unclear, with its government keen to stay in the PIF but its parliament insisting on a walkout. “I doubt that we will see more surprise departures from the PIF.”
What is clear, though, is that Kiribati’s exit from the group weakens the PIF, said experts. The biggest beneficiary? Beijing, which denies any role in causing the fissures within the bloc. “A weakened forum would open the door to more overt great power maneuvering, especially on China’s part,” said Marc Lanteigne, an associate professor of political science at the Arctic University of Norway, whose work focuses on the Indo-Pacific region.
Individually, small Pacific Island nations are more vulnerable to the economic allurements China promises — and that the West has failed to match. China’s loans indeed lead to unsustainable debts: Samoa owes Beijing an amount equivalent to 30% of its GDP, while Vanuatu’s debt to China is nearly a quarter of its GDP.
But Robert Sikol Bohn, a former member of Vanuatu’s parliament who now serves as an adviser to the country’s foreign ministry, said China’s money also results in visible infrastructure projects that local politicians can showcase to their electorate as achievements, whether it’s a soccer stadium in the Solomon Islands, an airstrip in Kiribati, or the Parliament building in Vanuatu. The Solomon Islands and Kiribati both dumped their recognition of Taiwan in 2019 to commit to ties with China instead.
“Australia and the U.S. focus their support on good governance and strengthening democracy,” said Bohn. “That’s just not as sexy for a politician to sell as ports, airfields, and buildings.”
The cracks in the PIF also threaten to undermine the region’s fight against climate change. The island nations face threats from illegal fishing by Chinese trawlers. But the West isn’t completely blameless either, said Stünkel, referring to former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s support for coal. Bohn agreed. “Sometimes, I wonder about the West: Are they even listening to what we’re trying to tell them?” he asked.
It's a failing that Harris acknowledged in her address to the PIF. “We recognize that in recent years, the Pacific Islands may not have received the diplomatic attention and support that you deserve,” she said. “We are going to change that.”
This represents a shift away from Washington’s approach in recent years of letting Australia and New Zealand take the lead in managing the West’s ties with Pacific Island nations. There’s greater recognition that the U.S. needs to get more involved.
“Kiribati has served as a wakeup call for Washington,” Kenilorea Jr. said. “The big question is: How long will it stay awake?”
Charu Kasturi is a freelance writer specializing in foreign affairs. He is based in Bangalore, India, and often writes for outlets such as Al Jazeera and Foreign Policy.