Imperial visits: US emissaries in the Pacific

March 23, 2023
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman with Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, August 2022. Photo: US State Department/Wikimedia Commons

A number of Pacific Islands have not fallen for the rhetoric that Beijing is there to consume and dominate.

Nor have these nations, in a largely aqueous region, been blind to their own interests including the need to avoid the rising waters of climate change.

A number of United States officials are keen to push the line that Washington’s policy is back where it should be. It’s all part of the Biden administration’s strategy, typified by the US-Pacific Island Country summit last September.

President Joe Biden told the summit that “the security of America, quite frankly, and the world, depends on your security and the security of the Pacific Islands. And I really mean that.”

Not once was China mentioned, but a new Pacific Partnership Strategy was announced. Then came the promised cash: some US$810 million in expanded US-led programs, including more than US$130 million in new investments to support, among other things, climate resilience and improve food security.

The Pacific Islands have also been host to a flurry of official visitors. In January, US Indo-Pacific military commander Admiral John Aquilino popped into Papua New Guinea to remind Port Moresby that the eyes of the US were gazing benignly upon them.

It was his first to the country. The US Indo-Pacific Command said it underscored “the importance of the US-Papua New Guinea relationship” and showed US resolve “toward building a more peaceful, stable, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region”.

In February, the US reopened its embassy, closed since 1993, in the Solomon Islands. Little interest had been shown for three decades until Beijing did the unpardonable: made overtures to seek influence.

Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare now finds himself at the centre of much interest, at least until he falls out of favour with Washington. His “Friends to all, enemy to none” policy, declared last May, has become a mantra.

“My government welcomes all high-level visits from our key development partners. We will always stand true to our policy of ‘Friends to All and Enemies to None’ as we look forward to continuing productive relations with all our development partners.”

For the moment, US representative Russell Corneau noted the embassy would “serve as a key platform” between Washington and the Solomon Islands.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared at the February 1 Embassy opening that it “builds on our efforts to place more diplomatic personnel throughout the region and engage further with our Pacific neighbours, connect United States programs and resources with needs on the ground, and build people-to-people ties”.

Sogavare absented himself from the ceremony.

Kurt Campbell, Deputy Assistant to the US President and Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific National Security Council, has been particularly busy this month.

The Solomon Islands has been of particular interest, given its arrangements with Beijing. Sogavare had just hosted two high-profile visits from Japan and China, then Campbell and his eight-member delegation arrived.

“We realise that we have to overcome in certain areas some amounts of distrust and uncertainty about follow through,” Campbell told reporters in Wellington.

“We’re seeking to gain that trust and confidence as we go forward. Much of what we are doing has been initiated by the president, but I want to underscore that it’s quite bipartisan.”

In Honiara, Campbell admitted that the US had not done “enough before” and had to be “big enough to admit that we need to do more, and we need to do better”.

Doing more and doing better entailed dragging a promise from Sogavare that his country would not create a military facility “that would support power projection capabilities” for Beijing.

Earlier, Qian Bo, China’s Pacific Island envoy, had been visiting. In Vanuatu, he met with the Melanesian Spearhead Group comprising Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and the Kanak independence movement in New Caledonia.

A leaked 13-page letter from Micronesia’s outgoing President David Panuelo on March 9 accused Beijing of trying to undermine Micronesia’s sovereignty. It called on the country to cut ties with China and recognise Taiwan.

Panuelo’s letter to state governors and members of Micronesia’s Congress said he met with Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu to discuss what he could offer in exchange for Micronesia’s diplomatic recognition.

Panuelo also said he wanted the US to inject US$50 million into Micronesia’s national trust fund and make an annual donation of US$15 million.

“All of this assistance, of course, would be on top of the greatly added layers of security and protection that come from our country distancing itself from the PRC,” he said.

Micronesian officials, he charged, had been the targets of bribes and offers of bribes from the Chinese embassy.

Not all his Pacific colleagues agree. Beijing and Washington are finding that the small Pacific countries are willing to exploit the rivalry.

[Binoy Kampmark currently lectures at RMIT University.]

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