In Pacific islands, US diplomatic push stirs memories of neglect
Small Pacific island nations are gaining attention amid US-China rivalry after years of being overlooked.
As United States Vice President Kamala Harris unveiled a major ramping up of US aid and diplomacy in Pacific island countries on Wednesday, she acknowledged that they had not always received the “attention and support that you deserve”.
That is a sentiment with resonance across the region’s sparsely-populated, isolated island states, which are gaining attention as battlegrounds for the heated strategic competition between the US and China after decades of being treated as a diplomatic afterthought.
For many Pacific leaders, the US’s renewed engagement with their region is welcome, if long overdue.
Most Pacific island nations, which are meeting at an ongoing leaders’ summit in Fiji, have a gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of less than $5,000, lack basic infrastructure, and lag developed economies in indicators such as life expectancy, education and health.
Countries such as Vanuatu, Tuvalu, Kiribati, and the Marshall Islands are also among the world’s most vulnerable to climate change, lying just a few metres above sea level.
Speaking after Harris’ announcement, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said the US “is certainly looking a lot more like the Pacific partner we have traditionally held it to be”.
“Obviously the US is late to the party, but as they say, better late than never,” Robert Bohn, an adviser to Vanuatu’s foreign minister and a former legislator, told Al Jazeera.
“I have been telling the USA to get into the game since 1992. More is always better, but a start is always good.”
“Some of it is obviously to counter China, but mostly it is about finally getting back into the game,” Bohn added.
In a video address to Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders’ meeting on Wednesday, Harris said that funding to help the region boost maritime security and tackle illegal fishing and climate change would be tripled to $600 million over a decade, subject to approval by Congress.
The vice president also said Washington would open new embassies in Kiribati and Tonga, redeploy the Peace Corps to the region, and appoint its first ever Pacific envoy.
But the US’s renewed engagement with the region has generated suspicion and cynicism, too, with some viewing the outreach as mostly concerned with containing China, which has significantly expanded its influence in the region.
China’s recent inroads include persuading Kiribati and the Solomon Islands to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province, and inking a security pact with the Solomon Islands that has raised alarm in the US, Australia and New Zealand.
Tebao Awerika, a government member of Parliament in Kiribati, which has skipped this year’s PIF summit amid a rift between Micronesian states and other members, expressed scepticism about Washington’s motivations.
Awerika pointed to the US withdrawal of its Peace Corps from Kiribati two decades ago due to purported concerns about the safety of air travel and health facilities in the archipelago, located about halfway between Hawaii and Australia.
“They could have helped us 20 years ago but they did not,” Awerika, whose party leader, Kiribati President Taneti Maamau, oversaw the diplomatic switch from Taipei to Beijing, told Al Jazeera.
“The only conclusion is that they are assisting us now because of our relationship with China.”
“You can deduct how Kiribati views the aid they’ve decided to provide,” Awerika added. “They could have assisted us to upgrade our national airline as well as our medical facilities.”
Tessie Lambourne, the leader of the Kiribati opposition, welcomed the US commitment, although she said it had been a long time coming and its success would depend on its implementation.
“We have tried for so long to get the US to return to the Pacific, for the US to increase its presence and visibility in our country and our region, for the US to get the Peace Corps volunteers back to the Pacific,” Lambourne told Al Jazeera.
Lambourne said the US could go further in providing development assistance to the country, whose GDP per capita of $1,670 is only slightly higher than that of Cambodia.
“It’s a start but I think the US also needs to assist with economic and social infrastructure development and improvement,” she said. “For Kiribati, I think that maritime security will be a priority. That’s where the real test lies.”
For some Pacific Islanders, though, a US agenda concerned with pushing back against China is more of a source of hope than cynicism or suspicion.
Peter Kenilorea Jr, deputy opposition leader in the Solomon Islands, where the diplomatic switch to Beijing in 2019 stoked serious political controversy, said he believes his country is on the “front lines of political warfare” by Beijing.
“And to a certain extent People’s Republic of China is winning this as we saw with the signing of the security pact between themselves and Solomon Islands,” Kenilorea told Al Jazeera.
“Announcements are always welcomed but the implementation of programmes on the ground is perhaps more important.”
Kenilorea said the US could overcome perceptions it is playing catchup by providing the support needed by Pacific island states.
“There is a feeling that the US is playing catch up. But focusing on the needs of our countries will quickly show that the US is not playing catch up or responding,” he said. “They are simply stepping up as partners for the islands.”