Nguyen Hoang Thuy Tien, Tokyo International University , for East Asia Forum

The United States is increasingly concerned about the geopolitical complications posed by China’s expanding presence in the Pacific in the past decade. But Washington must prioritise gaining the trust of the Pacific Island countries to ensure meaningful commitment to the region — without Beijing’s initiatives being the key motivation for cooperation.

The Pacific Islands play a pivotal role in the Indo-Pacific Strategy and are a vital region to US security and prosperity. The Pacific Islands also lead in the collective effort against climate change — a pressing global security challenge. The region is a strategic nexus between Asia, Australia and the United States that is crucial for trade, maritime security and regional ties.

But cooperation with the Pacific may be hampered by the Pacific Islands’ lack of confidence in the United States, as US engagement in the region is often perceived as a reaction to China’s Pacific expansion.

China has become increasingly involved in the Pacific through a variety of diplomatic strategies and aid programs, with China’s assistance to the Pacific Islands now surpassing that of the United States. China’s commitment extends to multilateral engagement, as seen in Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s efforts, but is yet to garner the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders’ support. China’s expansion in the region also indicates increased potential for naval presence.

The China–Solomon Islands security pact, signed in April 2022, further underscores the potential for a Chinese naval base in the South Pacific. While both the Solomon Islands and China emphasised the non-military nature of the agreement, China’s persistent interest in a military outpost suggests a future proposal is possible.

In September 2022, the Biden administration announced the Pacific Partnership Strategy — the first US strategy document dedicated to the Pacific Islands. While it emphasises transnational issues without explicitly mentioning China, Washington’s attention towards the Pacific can be perceived as a counter-move against Beijing.

If countering China is seen as Washington’s primary motivation for South Pacific engagement, the partnership is unlikely to achieve its full potential. Though Washington has affirmed that its interest in the region transcends the political tug of war with China, its commitment must be proven through practical action.

The United States must disburse financial resources to Pacific nations to demonstrate its commitment. The Biden administration proposed US$7 billion in funding over the next 20 years to complete the Compacts of Free Association (COFA) negotiations — a key aspect of US–Pacific cooperation. But the promised aid has yet to reach the Pacific Islands.

With the COFA agreements expiring in 2023, doubts may arise about the long-term viability of the Pacific Partnership Strategy if Washington fails to meet its commitments. This could lead Pacific Islanders to consider Chinese assistance, even if it comes with conditions.

The United States must assume more responsibility in combating climate change. With thousands of Pacific Islanders displaced annually due to rising sea levels and extreme weather, the Pacific Islands’ foremost priority is combatting climate change, as shown by the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent policy framework.

The 2022 Supreme Court decision limiting the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s emissions control power, and the US rejection of the 2023 United Nations resolution on climate obligations, have raised doubts about Washington’s climate commitment. The United States must take bolder steps on climate change to build trust and demonstrate genuine interest in helping the Pacific Islands combat existential threats.

The United States must also assist Pacific Island nations in addressing war remnants. The Solomon Islands, which played a crucial role in the Pacific War, remains scattered with unexploded bombs and landmines. In 2021, four citizens fell victim to an underground bombshell from the Second World War in Honiara.

The Marshall Islands, once a Cold War atomic bomb testing site, hosted 67 nuclear tests between 1946 and 1958. In 1979, the United States enclosed the waste in a concrete dome as a cleanup effort, yet reports have revealed ongoing leakage into the soil and Pacific Ocean. This poses a health and environmental threat to Marshall Islands population. The fallout is linked to a cancer rate of up to 55 per cent in highly exposed regions. Insufficient compensation from the United States presents a major block in COFA renegotiations.

Addressing these war legacies is pivotal for trust building and enhancing partnerships across the Pacific Islands. As US–Vietnam post-war reconciliation demonstrates, efforts to clean up war remnants can significantly enhance strategic trust.

If the United States successfully gains the trust of PIF leaders, its desire to balance China’s expansion will fall into place. Washington must see the competition with China as not the primary driver of its strategic partnership with the Pacific Islands but as one of the many potential benefits it will gain from cooperation.

To adeptly counterbalance Beijing’s presence in the Pacific, Washington must prioritise cultivating genuine relationships based on an understanding of the Pacific Islands’ strategic interests, climate vulnerabilities and historical sensitivities surrounding war legacies. Washington must manoeuvre independently of its rivalry with Beijing to ensure meaningful engagement with the Pacific Islands.

The original article can be found here at East Asia Forum.

Nguyen Hoang Thuy Tien is Undergraduate Student of International Relations at Tokyo International University. She is serving as Editor of the TIU Undergraduate Academic Paper Series.