“Our Ocean” Offers a New Turn in U.S.-Pacific Relations

Secretary of State John Kerry has made it his mission to raise awareness about the health of the world’s oceans. One cornerstone of this campaign will be the “Our Ocean” conference hosted by the U.S. Department of State on June 16 and 17 in Washington, which will attract high-level political and thought leaders from across the Pacific. If he plays his hand well, Kerry not only will highlight pressing issues affecting oceans globally, but will help transform the agenda of the U.S.-Pacific Islands relationship.

That relationship received a boost in 2011 with the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region, and again in 2012 when then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton became the highest-level U.S. representative ever to attend the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). Her proclamation that the Pacific would not be forgotten in the United States’ “Pacific Century” was bolstered by a series of initiatives including programs to support women’s equality, a shiprider agreement with the U.S. Coast Guard to increase domain awareness, the reopening of the U.S. Agency for International Development office in Papua New Guinea, and the renegotiation of the South Pacific Tuna Treaty.

Despite this flurry of activity, the Pacific Islands share doubts about whether the U.S. focus will be sustained. Unresolved issues between the United States and its three freely associated states—the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and Palau—only heighten skepticism about the U.S. promise to prioritize the region. Congress’s failure to approve Palau’s compact budget, which would support vital infrastructure, health care, and education programs, is particularly worrying.

Secretary Kerry may not be as active in the region as Secretary Clinton was, but his concern for ocean health has given the second Barack Obama administration an important opportunity to change the tone of the U.S.-Pacific Islands relationship.

For the Pacific Islands, the effectiveness of global ocean policy is a high-stakes game. The ocean is central to Pacific culture and is a vital source of livelihood and nourishment. But global issues such as climate change, ocean acidification, pollution, and overexploitation of fisheries threaten the natural environment on which these islands depend. Indeed, the very existence of low-lying atolls such as Kiribati and Tuvalu is under threat by a rise is sea levels.

The “Our Ocean” conference will focus on three main issues: overfishing, ocean acidification, and marine pollution. Each of these is important to the Pacific Islands for different reasons.

The Pacific Ocean is one of the last healthy fisheries habitats in the world, and the island states are urgently seeking solutions to manage their large exclusive economic zones (EEZ) and prevent overfishing. The Pacific Islands have had some breakthroughs, such as completing the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, which attempts to control prices and promote the development of local fisheries in their joint EEZs, and an international agreement that fishing vessels must use tracking devices. But even with shiprider agreements, which allow their personnel to accompany foreign-flagged ships, including those of the United States, the Pacific Islands do not have enough resources to effectively police their extensive EEZs.

Ocean acidification lies at the heart of concerns about the effects of climate change on the Pacific. Carbon dioxide emissions are absorbed into the ocean, altering its chemical structure. Although the effects of acidification have not been fully explored, strong evidence suggests that it contributes to the coral bleaching process that is affecting reefs as well as the sturdiness of mollusk shells.

Pollution in the Pacific is undoubtedly most visible in the form of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is gathering in a current vortex and covers an area roughly twice the size of Texas. Less visible are the effects of chemical runoff from industry and land use. It is estimated that the Pacific Ocean will see mercury levels double at depths of 660 to 3,300 feet by 2050.

A key reason why Kerry has found traction with this issue is because many U.S. coastal areas are echoing the experiences of the Pacific Islands. The third National Climate Assessment that was released on May 6 has highlighted that changing ocean temperatures will alter the chemistry of the ocean, marine habitats, the productivity of fisheries, and coastal geography in the United States. Changes in climate are estimated to affect approximately 160 million U.S. citizens who live and work in coastal communities.

Kerry is expected to announce deliverables at the upcoming conference, but what those are and whether they will simply raise the profile of the issue or also open up long-term collaboration possibilities with the Pacific Islands is unknown. The tentative agenda for “Our Ocean” released on the State Department’s website lists as speakers several experts from the Pacific who have been working on the three issues to be discussed. This suggests a level of equality in dealing with ocean issues that may not be felt in other parts of the relationship.

The United States has been defined in the region by its role as a “distant water fishing nation,” an aid donor, and a colonial power, and by its history as a nuclear power. Cooperating on ocean policy is an excellent way to ultimately affect long-term change in this relationship, particularly because it is an area where expertise can be shared. While the Pacific has on-the-ground expertise and local knowledge on oceans issues, the United States can bring unparalleled technical resources to the table to work on solutions.

(This Commentary originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Pacific Partners Outlook.)

Elke Larsen is research assistant and program coordinator with the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Elke Larsen