White House Unveils Pacific Islands Strategy at Historic Summit

The Biden administration hosted the first-ever U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit in Washington, D.C. on September 28–29, bringing together more than a dozen Pacific Island leaders and other key observers to discuss areas of shared interest, including climate change, maritime security, and economic development. The summit came in tandem with the White House’s release of its first-ever Pacific Partnership Strategy, laying out a framework for the future of U.S. engagement with the region. In this Critical Questions, CSIS experts explore the implications of the summit and provide insight into Washington’s renewed focus on the region and what it might mean for U.S.-Pacific Islands relations moving forward.

Q1: Why is the White House holding a U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit this week? And why has the Pacific suddenly become a hot topic in Washington?

A1: For years, the Pacific Island region suffered from strategic neglect from Washington and others, and Beijing has stepped into that strategic vacuum, moving to increase its influence and project its power across the region.  

At the CSIS Australia Chair launch event in January, Kurt Campbell, coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs on the National Security Council, signaled White House concern over the advances China was making in the region, observing that the Pacific region might well see “certain kinds of strategic surprise” in the form of Chinese basing agreements and noting that the United States needed “to substantially step up [its] game” in the Pacific.  

These concerns grew as word leaked that Beijing was working toward concluding a secret security deal with the Solomon Islands in March, seemingly opening the door for a Chinese naval base and potentially allowing Beijing to send police and security forces to the island nation to quell any domestic unrest.  

Over the last six months, the Biden administration has sprung into action—sending multiple high-level delegations to the region, elevating the status of its engagement, and promising more resources. While China’s increasing presence in the region undeniably prompted this push, Washington seems well aware that its efforts are unlikely to be favorably met if it does not address the concerns of the Pacific Island community—of which tackling climate change, protecting fisheries from encroachment, strengthening regional institutions, and promoting sustainable development all take precedence over competing with China.  

The Pacific Partnership Strategy, as well as the U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit, are in line with these efforts to increase U.S. attention on this important region. The Biden administration’s focus on supporting Pacific regionalism, prioritizing issues of paramount concern to the region, and downplaying the China angle should be well received. Moreover, its moves to set up more diplomatic posts throughout the region and establish a more sustained coast guard presence to combat illegal fishing, are both long overdue.  

Supporting a more robust Pacific agenda with an enhanced U.S. presence in the Pacific Islands has attracted bipartisan backing in Washington. This is necessary as it will now be on Congress as much as it is on any administration to sustain attention and resourcing over the long term.   

While this week’s activities and initiatives represent a solid beginning for the next steps in U.S. engagement with the Pacific Islands, it will ultimately be Washington’s actions, and not its words, that will be evaluated by those in and beyond the region.   

Q2: What initiatives were announced at the summit and what was the intent behind them?

A2: President Biden’s first-ever White House summit with Pacific Island leaders is a significant diplomatic initiative that builds on earlier efforts by his administration to strengthen cooperation among like-minded states in the Indo-Pacific, such as the Quad, AUKUS, and the U.S.- Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in May.

The principal motivation for “elevating broader and deeper engagement with the Pacific Islands” goes virtually unmentioned in the public strategy: China’s aggressive efforts to expand influence throughout the region, including through military presence, which have accelerated over the last year. China is barely mentioned in either the Pacific Partners Strategy or the public pronouncements surrounding the summit. But many of its lines of effort—strengthening regional institutions like the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), supporting maritime security and sovereign rights, and promoting good governance—clearly have China in mind. And beyond that, the strategy largely focuses on climate change resilience and adaptation, resource management and ocean health, coast guard support and maritime domain awareness, undersea cables and other information and communication technologies (ICT) infrastructure, public health, and educational exchanges, among other public goods.

The list of deliverables is impressive but includes areas long on aspiration and uncertain in congressional support. The administration intends to expand diplomatic presence through new embassies in the Solomon Islands (announced previously), and eventually Kiribati and Tonga; the appointment of a U.S. envoy to the PIF; a new regional U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) mission in Fiji; and expanded Peace Corps presence across the region. The deliverables list includes the promise of $810 million in new funding—including a 10-year $600 million economic assistance request to Congress that is connected to renewal of the South Pacific Tuna Treaty—and funding for programs related to climate resilience, education, and training for Pacific leaders, infrastructure, and coast guard and law enforcement capacity building. 

This list is significant—but sustaining focus on the region and following through on commitments is certain to be challenging. There is little expertise on the Pacific Island region across the U.S. government; the number of staff working on the region at the State Department, USAID, and the Department of Defense is small and unlikely to grow significantly. And in an environment of scarce resources and competing priorities, funding will be a constant issue.

Ultimately, competition with China was the obvious subtext for the summit, as it was for the Partners in the Blue Pacific meeting hosted by Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week with counterparts from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Germany. But the administration recognizes that it competes most effectively by addressing partner needs and providing alternatives, not hectoring countries about the dangers of working too closely with Beijing. And the creation of the Partners in the Blue Pacific, assuming it is institutionalized with a regular rhythm of meetings, will help to sustain policy focus on this critical region.

Q3: Why is bolstering Pacific regionalism at the heart of Washington’s strategy?

A3: The administration’s new Pacific Partners Strategy highlights for the first time the importance of this region to the United States—even while acknowledging that it has long been neglected—and formally connects the Pacific Islands to its larger Indo-Pacific Strategy. And while it places a strong emphasis on the three countries with formal ties to the United States through Compacts of Free Association—the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau—the strategy sets a broader frame for U.S. interests and objectives that encompasses the region as a whole. This, too, is significant, because it signals an intent to move U.S. policy beyond its traditional focus on the north Pacific.

Earlier this summer, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi presented Pacific Island leaders with a draft multilateral agreement but was rebuffed, at least in part because Beijing wrote it without their input or concern for existing Pacific architecture. By contrast, the Biden administration worked hard to show deference to the way Pacific partners do things. The White House initially invited only the 12 island countries with which it has formal diplomatic relations. But in response to criticism, it extended invitations to all members of the PIF, including the French territories of New Caledonia and French Polynesia, and the Cook Islands and Niue, which are in free association with New Zealand. And at the summit, the administration announced that it would be establishing formal diplomatic relations with the latter two. The administration also framed its initiatives around stated Pacific priorities, including the PIF’s 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent and the Boe Declaration on Regional Security, which identified climate change as the greatest threat to island states. This respectful approach helps explain why all those attending the summit, including the initially hesitant Solomon Islands, endorsed an 11-point joint declaration.

Q4: What is the status of U.S. negotiations with the Compact States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau?

A4: The thorniest issue left unresolved at the summit is the renegotiation of Compacts of Free Association with the Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, and Palau. The compacts were originally negotiated upon those countries’ independence from the U.S.-administered Trust Territory of the Pacific. Under them, the United States provides for national defense, financial assistance, various government services, and allows compact citizens to live and work freely in the United States. In exchange, it receives exclusive military access to the waters and airspace of the three countries. The compacts are set to expire in 2023 for the Marshall Islands and Micronesia, and 2024 for Palau.

Just days before the summit, the Marshallese government called off a planned third negotiating round with the U.S. team led by Ambassador Joseph Yun, the special presidential envoy for compact negotiations. It cited Washington’s refusal to respond to a July proposal on increased support to address public health, social, and environmental legacies of U.S. nuclear testing in the islands from the 1950s onward. This was followed by a joint letter from the ambassadors of all three freely associated states to the White House declaring that the administration’s offers of support are still insufficient for the renewal of the compacts. All sides managed to paper over these differences during the summit and the White House reiterated that it expects to conclude the negotiations this year. But there is no obvious way to bridge the gulf between the Marshall Islands’ demand for billions in compensation with the United States’ insistence that all nuclear legacy issues were settled decades ago during the establishment of the original compacts. And if what’s past is prologue, even securing congressional support for renewal of the compacts is likely to be difficult and could extend beyond the expiration of the current compact agreements. 

Charles Edel is senior adviser and Australia Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Christopher B. Johnstone is senior adviser and Japan Chair at CSIS. Gregory B. Poling is a senior fellow and director for the Southeast Asia Program and the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at CSIS.

Critical Questions 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).

© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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