May 22, 2023 - World

Biden seals 3 deals in Pacific islands as U.S. competes with China

Secretary of State Tony Blinken (L) at the signing ceremony with Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape (C) and Defence Minister Win Bakri Daki. Photo: Adek Berry/AFP via Getty

A U.S. diplomatic offensive to counter China's growing clout in the Pacific Islands appears to be paying dividends, with three agreements sealed within 48 hours.

The big picture: The Biden administration has focused far more attention on the Pacific islands — new embassies, more aid, several high-level visits — since a security pact between China and the Solomon Islands spooked Washington last year.

  • The recent agreements with Papua New Guinea (PNG), Palau and Micronesia underscore that, for now, "it's still a heavily U.S.-leaning region," says Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation.

Driving the news: Secretary of State Tony Blinken and PNG Prime Minister James Marape signed a security pact Monday under which the U.S. will provide training and funding to help PNG's military respond to threats like drug trafficking and natural disasters.

  • President Biden intended to sign it himself in what would have been the first U.S. presidential visit to a Pacific Islands country, but he flew home from the G7 summit in Japan to deal with the debt ceiling crisis instead.

Between the lines: The U.S.-PNG agreement hasn't been published, but it's expected to give the U.S. military conditional access to bases, ports and airports in the country.

  • Ahead of the signing, student protesters and rival politicians in PNG accused Marape of sacrificing sovereignty and putting the country at the center of U.S.-China rivalry.
  • Marape pushed back, arguing that the agreement will strengthen PNG's defenses and won't stop the country from doing business with China, which has developed roads and other infrastructure projects in the country in recent years.
  • Beijing's Foreign Ministry didn't directly object to the deal but said Beijing opposes the "introduction of any geopolitical games" in the region.

This is virtually a mirror image from one year ago, when China signed an opaque security pact with the Solomon Islands.

  • That agreement "kind of let the genie out of the bottle," says Grossman, with China trying to replicate it elsewhere, so far unsuccessfully, and the U.S. negotiating its own deal with PNG.
  • Even if competition with China is driving the U.S. into the region, the Biden administration knows it has to address local concerns — climate change, protecting fisheries, sustainable development — to make real inroads, says Charles Edel, Australia Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
  • Countries in the region, meanwhile, face the challenge of capitalizing on competition between the superpowers without being burned by it.

Blinken oversaw another signing ceremony on Monday as Palau extended its Compact of Free Association (COFA) with the U.S. for another 20 years. Micronesia will follow suit tomorrow.

  • A third agreement, with the Marshall Islands, is expected later this year, though talks are ongoing about compensation for those affected by U.S. nuclear testing in the islands in the 1940s and 1950s.
  • The U.S. covers large chunks of the three countries' budgets, provides for their defense, and allows their citizens to live and work freely in the U.S. In return, the U.S. military gets unfettered access to a swath of the Pacific larger than the continental U.S.

Flashback: In an extraordinary letter last year, then-Micronesia President David Panuelo accused Chinese officials of bribery and intimidation and warned that Beijing wanted to dominate the region. Beijing denied the claims.

  • The incident underscored the trust gap Beijing faces in some regional countries, Grossman says, though China has made inroads in Kiribati in addition to the Solomon Islands.

What to watch: The level of attention being paid to Pacific island countries may seem surprising given their tiny populations and economies.

  • Many Americans may have only heard of countries like the Solomon Islands because of major battles fought on their territory between the U.S. and Japan. But with fears rising of a U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan or in the South China Sea, that history provides some sense of the region's strategic significance.
  • "This is all about planning for the future," says Grossman. "If the balloon goes up, who's got friends in the region to allow for military access?"
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