Why the Pacific Matters to the Rebalance
December 4, 2014
It has been a busy few months in the Pacific—a helpful reminder that the region has greater geopolitical clout than is widely recognized. This should serve as a reminder that Washington cannot afford to overlook the “Pacific” part of the “Asia Pacific.”
The Pacific Islands in September emerged as a global moral compass on climate change, with Samoa hosting a once-in-a-decade UN Small Island Developing States conference on September 1–4 and Marshall Islands president Christopher Loeak opening the September 18 UN climate change summit in New York. There, 26-year old Marshallese poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner stole the show with a moving video message that evoked a standing ovation from world leaders.
World leaders including President Barack Obama traveled to Brisbane for the November 16–17 Group of 20 summit, following which many spread out across the Pacific. President François Hollande visited the French territory of New Caledonia while both Chinese president Xi Jinping and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi travelled to Fiji.
U.S. officials have also been present in the region of late. Counselor to the president John Podesta led a high-level U.S. delegation to Palau on July 29–August 1 to join leaders from 29 other nations for the annual Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) and Post Forum Dialogue, at which they discussed stewardship of maritime resources, sustainable development, climate change, and other topics. Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel met with their Australian counterparts, Julie Bishop and David Johnston, in Sydney on August 11–13 for the annual Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN). Kerry followed that visit with an August 13 visit to the Solomon Islands.
What this abundance of attention underscores is that Australia, New Zealand, and their small island neighbors in the Pacific are increasingly a nexus of global attention, important players on the regional and world stage, and vital partners for Washington.
Australia remains the most critical partner the United States has in the Pacific. The relationship is crucial for U.S. interests throughout the Asia Pacific as well as farther afield. During the AUSMIN discussions, Kerry and Hagel signed a force posture agreement laying out the parameters of a U.S. Marine rotational presence in Darwin, northern Australia, for the next 25 years. They discussed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, the situation in Ukraine, and the threat presented by extremists fighting in Iraq and Syria returning to Southeast Asia. Australian F/A-18F fighter jets flew their first combat patrols over Iraq on October 6, and Australia has sent 600 personnel along with surveillance and tanker aircraft to contribute to the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State.
New Zealand too is a crucial partner, and one that has grown closer over the course of the U.S. rebalance. With the Wellington and Washington declarations of 2010 and 2012, the United States and New Zealand laid out their vision for a new era of cooperation, one no longer overshadowed by the breakdown in their security alliance in the 1980s. New Zealand maintained a provincial reconstruction team in Afghanistan until mid-2013 and is now considering the deployment of special forces to Iraq in a training and advising role in the fight against the Islamic State. Earlier this year, a New Zealand naval vessel docked at Pearl Harbor for the first time in three decades and took part fully in the U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific multilateral training exercises.
Australia and New Zealand have proven invaluable to the Obama administration’s rebalance, particularly its focus on building up regional institutions and multilateral security cooperation. Both are fellow members of the East Asia Summit and were critical supporters, along with Japan, of U.S. entry into that grouping, which has become the preeminent leaders’ forum in the region. They have both emerged as active partners in the region’s burgeoning security architecture, including both U.S.-led and Asian-led bodies and exercises.
Australia served as the inaugural cochair of the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+) working group on maritime security from April 2011 to April 2014, including cohosting the first-ever ADMM+ joint exercise on maritime security. It then handed off its responsibilities to New Zealand, which is currently chairing the group.
The U.S. view of the rest of the Pacific has been shaped for decades by an assumption of Australian leadership. And Australia’s primacy in the Pacific is unlikely to be eclipsed in the near term. But the United States has its own interests in the Pacific Islands. It is a resident Pacific power, with territories in American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands. The military aspect of the rebalance and explicit plans to reposition assets from Okinawa and elsewhere in the region highlight the importance of the latter two.
In addition, the United States has compacts of free association with three states in the Pacific—the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau—through which it gains substantial economic benefit, influence, and security access. Beyond those special relationships, the administration has recognized the unique role of Pacific Island states as partners in its hallmark efforts to combat climate change and preserve ocean health.
The United States must also recognize that outside players are increasingly competing for influence as never before, meaning that Washington can ill afford to overlook the Pacific. The challenge of this growing competition can be seen in the fracturing of regional institutions, especially the PIF, over which Australia has traditionally held sway. The creation of the subregional Melanesian Spearhead Group and Pacific Island Development Forum, and Fiji’s refusal to rejoin the PIF, illustrate this trend. China’s burgeoning influence in the Pacific did not cause this fracturing of regional institutions, but it has contributed to it. This means that to be successful, any future regional architecture will have to accommodate China’s growing presence, and will benefit greatly from high-level U.S. attention.
The Pacific requires ongoing attention and commitment to agreements that preserve the freedom of communication and sea lines of communication that promote economic viability. Pacific regionalism presents an unambiguous opportunity for the United States to advance its interests by promoting its values. Who is playing in the Pacific matters less than whether they play by the rules. Any architecture that promotes best practices in development, trade, and respect for international law serves the interests of both Washington and its partners. And both individually and as a region, the nations of the Pacific must be afforded a place in the U.S. rebalance to the Asia Pacific.
(This Commentary originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Pacific Partners Outlook.)
Gregory Poling is a fellow with the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. James Hurndell is a researcher with the Pacific Partners Initiative.
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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