The Pacific Islands Are a Covid-19 Priority

The Pacific Islands have so far been spared large-scale Covid-19 outbreaks, but the region is nonetheless being battered by the downstream effects of the pandemic. Governments have had to impose lockdown measures to keep the virus out. And international travel has ground to a halt. Pacific Island economies, which are heavily reliant on foreign tourism, are badly hurting. Across the region, the fall in incomes and government revenues will have knock-on effects for social well-being long after the public health emergency has faded.

Island nations are looking to their traditional partners, especially Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, for assistance. China has also played an important role in delivering Covid-19 aid, as has Taiwan. There are aspects of great power competition at play in the disbursement of assistance to Pacific nations. But the region has so far avoided the more heavy-handed politicization of aid seen in places like Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe. This is in part due to Australia playing the leading role in most of the Pacific, in close collaboration with New Zealand. The United States has focused its efforts in Micronesia, where the Compacts of Free Association create both the obligation to help and multiple funding streams to do so. Chinese aid has been most visible in a handful of states with which Beijing already has or is courting close economic ties. And Taiwan is playing a quiet but active role assisting its remaining partners in the region.

Assistance to the Pacific Islands can be divided into two categories. All donors have distributed personal protective equipment and other immediate needs, particularly in the early months of the pandemic. Such donations account for almost all of China’s assistance. But most outside partners, including the United States, have also made longer-term interventions to shore up local health care systems and aid economic recovery. This is especially important in the Pacific, where the second-order effects of the virus are likely to be much worse than its immediate impacts on public health.

Mask Diplomacy and China-Taiwan Competition

The Covid-19 pandemic has given Beijing and Taipei cause to step up their diplomatic competition in the Pacific Islands. China’s assistance to the region began in late March, with the announcement of a nearly $2 million cash donation and shipments of medical aid to Fiji and others. China has since provided more medical supplies to Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji, and the Federated States of Micronesia. As in other regions, Beijing’s efforts have been coupled with a media blitz. The Chinese embassies in Samoa and Vanuatu have published articles in local papers extolling the virtues of China’s response to the pandemic. But these efforts haven’t been quite as tin-eared as in some other regions and haven’t provoked the same blowback. They also have not been met as explicitly by counter-messaging from the United States or other partners. Still, China has overstepped at times and might do so again. In Papua New Guinea, for instance, Chinese miners were banned from entering the country amid revelations that their employer in China was using them in a Covid-19 vaccination trial without permission from local authorities.

Taiwan, which suffered setbacks last year when Kiribati and the Solomon Islands switched diplomatic recognition to China, has actively distributed aid. And that assistance has extended beyond just its remaining diplomatic allies. Taiwan has provided medical supplies and personal protective equipment to the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Nauru, Palau, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea. Taipei also contributed $1 million to the Marshall Islands for its Covid-19 Pandemic Preparedness and Response Plan. But Taiwan’s delicate status on the global stage limits how much it can crow about such assistance. On August 11, Foreign Minister Joseph Wu acknowledged that Taipei has surreptitiously delivered assistance to countries to shield recipients from punishment by Beijing. In the Solomon Islands, for instance, Taiwan has channeled Covid-19 support through sympathetic local leaders in the province of Malaita, drawing the ire of pro-Beijing officials in Honiara, the capital.

Traditional Partners and Long-Term Interventions

Australia, New Zealand, and the United States have also provided Pacific Island nations with health equipment and cash donations. But their assistance programs also seek to facilitate long-term economic recovery. Australia in late May launched its Covid-19 development response, shifting millions in existing funding to tackle the effects of Covid-19 in the region. As of June 30, Australia has disbursed approximately $70 million from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s development budget to the Pacific Islands. More than $40 million was earmarked for the region at large, $14 million went to Papua New Guinea, nearly $10 million to the Solomon Islands, and $5.5 million to Timor-Leste. Australia’s assistance beyond cash grants has been wide-ranging, from deploying health experts to Fiji and the Solomon Islands to providing guidance on stimulus packages and other economic measures designed to offset the impacts of the pandemic.

After winning global praise for its efforts in successfully managing the pandemic at home, New Zealand has also directed its aid instruments toward the Pacific. By mid-March, Wellington had approved packages of rapid financial support to 12 Pacific Island countries and provided medical equipment, including ventilators and isolation facilities. Foreign Minister Winston Peters has played an active role in diplomatic outreach to the Pacific Islands, participating in phone calls with counterparts in Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, and the Solomon Islands. New Zealand has provided cash assistance to Covid-19 recovery and general budget support for Tonga and the Solomon Islands, and launched a $1.3 million fund for nongovernmental organizations delivering aid to communities in Fiji. Wellington has also partnered closely with Canberra, with both committing millions to the World Health Organization’s Covid-19 Pacific Health Sector Support plan.

The United States is also playing a key role in distributing assistance, especially to the three freely associated states of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands. The United States has so far committed about $160 million in Covid-19 assistance to the Pacific, over $130 million of which is earmarked for the compact states. This comes from an unusually wide array of agencies, reflecting the unique relationship that the United States has with the freely associated states. The U.S. Agency for International Development has played a key role, spearheading hygiene promotion campaigns, logistical support for distributing essential supplies and services, and efforts to combat Covid-19-related disinformation. The numbers appear to speak volumes. The three compact states combined are receiving more than four times the level of U.S. Covid-19-related assistance earmarked for the rest of the Pacific Islands and seemingly more than all of Southeast Asia (to which Washington had allocated more than $87 million as of September). This dovetails with the increasing strategic importance that the U.S. government assigns to Micronesia. Just last month, Mark Esper traveled to Palau, becoming the first U.S. secretary of defense to ever visit the island nation.

The Covid-19 pandemic offers an opportunity for partner nations to make good on commitments in the Pacific. The pandemic is wreaking havoc on regional economies and threatening hard-won progress on human development and sustainability. These costs are not apparent from case numbers or mortality rates, but they are severe. The crisis shows that assistance in the Pacific Islands need not be a zero-sum competition between China and the traditional partner nations. It also shows that for all their strategic hand-wringing, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States remain the partners of choice for most of the region. By continuing to deliver public goods, and invest in their long-standing relationships in the region, they can serve both humanitarian and strategic goals. They should engage closely with the Pacific Islands Forum to coordinate assistance. Effective regional architecture will be even more crucial in the pandemic’s aftermath. And most of all, Washington and its partners should continue to prioritize the region for the months, and likely years, it will take to fully recover from the effects of the pandemic.

Gregory B. Poling is senior fellow for Southeast Asia and director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Andreyka Natalegawa is a program coordinator and research assistant with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative