Biden boosts Pacific climate aid, but region remains ‘cautious’ over defence outreach amid US-China rivalry
- Washington’s plan to deepen diplomatic engagement comes as concerns grow about China’s expanding influence in the Pacific
- One analyst believes Pacific Island nations are likely to continue to leverage ties with both the US and China to push for action on climate change
The summit marked the first time Washington hosted leaders of a region it had considered its maritime backyard since World War II, but is now a place where China has made steady advances.
Washington’s plan to deepen diplomatic engagement comes as concerns grow about China’s expanding influence in the Pacific.
Brian Harding, a senior Asia expert at the United States Institute of Peace noted that relatively small investments had the potential to make large impacts given the small populations and economies of most Pacific nations.
He added that Washington was “trying to step up and get back to the basics” like having diplomatic representation in countries where it has been absent, and re-establishing a USAID mission in the region.
During the summit, the US has also announced that “following appropriate consultations”, it will recognise the self-governing territories of the Cook Islands and Niue.
The US Agency for International Development (USAID) is also expected to open a Pacific regional mission in Fiji by September 2023, and elevate its presence in Papua New Guinea through a country representative office.
Harding said that Pacific Island leaders see the geopolitical context clearly and seek to channel new-found US interest into tangible gains for their countries.
Zhu Ying, director of the Australian Centre for Asian Business at the University of South Australia, said the various help measures were welcomed by Pacific countries.
“People may say that the amount of money from the US is not sufficient in comparison with China’s trade, investment and financial support in the region, but any kind of support will do good to these countries,” Zhu said.
Between 2006 and 2017, China provided close to US$1.5 billion in foreign aid to the Pacific region through grants and loans, according to the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank. In 2017, China was the third-largest donor to the Pacific, and also delivered other forms of help, especially large infrastructure projects funded by concessional loans.
“They could see both of them as their friends if they act consistently as friends towards these Pacific countries,” Zhu added.
Edward Cavanough, a PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide, said even though the US commitments were relatively modest in total financial scale, it signified a step turn in Washington’s approach in the region.
The greater diplomatic presence in the region will create more future opportunities for Pacific Island countries to seek further financial support for important projects, Cavanough added.
Noting that the climate commitments made by the US focused more on resilience from climate disaster rather than on prevention, Cavanough added that Pacific countries were likely to continue to leverage their geostrategic asset – “being a region courted by both Washington and Beijing” – to push the world’s two largest economies on climate.
Apart from collaboration on climate resilience, the US has also pledged to provide greater support for climate forecasting and research and to set up a fellowship programme which will offer leaders in the Pacific Islands the opportunity to gain expertise in climate resilience, sustainable food systems, and renewable energy development.
Last month, during the China-Pacific Island Countries dialogue held in Beijing, China said it would provide more support in tackling climate change such as through the joint establishment of near-zero carbon zones, and supply training to climate change officials to implement climate change mitigation and adaptation projects.
Adding that the summit was being framed as a diplomatic “win” by Biden, Cavanough said it was historic for Pacific countries as “a diplomatic win of unique scale”.
“Here you have countries that are ostensibly the ‘smallest’, and least powerful nations on earth, negotiating face to face with the world’s most powerful leader, working through a distinctly Pacific issues agenda,” Cavanough said.
Washington also plans to begin talks soon with Papua New Guinea on a defence cooperation agreement.
Harding said Pacific Islanders were wary of anything that would contribute to militarisation of the region, but welcomed cooperation that would assist with maritime domain awareness and law enforcement.
In May, China and the Pacific islands were unable to reach consensus on a security agreement, prompting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to urge the region not to be “too anxious” about Beijing’s intentions.
However, Wang condemned interference in the deal and said the Solomon Islands’ relationship with China was a model for other Pacific island nations.