US President Joe Biden opened his summit on the Pacific Islands on Monday with an apology and recognition.
He first blamed the cancellation of a visit to Papua New Guinea earlier this year amid the country’s political drama and then praised US diplomatic recognition of the Cook Islands and the small island nation of Niue.
Biden also pointed to the dire existential threat identified by 18 countries due to climate change and pledged funding for climate aid and infrastructure.
In total, the White House said Biden announced the funding of nearly $200 million to “demonstrate the commitment of the United States to work with the Pacific Islands to expand and deepen our cooperation in the coming years.”
“We have heard your warnings about sea level rise and that it poses an existential threat to your countries,” Biden said. “We hear your calls to make sure that you never, ever lose your state or your UN membership because of the climate crisis.”
These 18 states have been battlegrounds of colonial conquest for centuries. The Cook Islands, for example, are named after Captain James Cook, the British adventurer who ruthlessly conquered native lands across the vast expanse of the Pacific, from Australia to Canada, for the crown.
His brutal execution in 1779 at the hands of Native Hawaiians is commemorated in Hawaii to this day.
In contrast, the United States has a better record, said Gordon Peake, senior adviser for the Pacific Islands at the United States Institute of Peace.
“The United States may have forgotten the Pacific Islands a little over the last eight decades, but the Pacific Islands have not forgotten the United States,” he said. “There’s a lot of American goodwill left over from World War II.”
Perhaps to illustrate these deep, often personal relationships, the leaders stopped before arriving at the White House, taking a special train from New York (where many attended the UN General Assembly) to Baltimore, Maryland, to see the Baltimore Ravens professional football team, home to some famous Polynesian players and Hall of Famers.
But on the diplomatic playing field, Washington faces fierce competition. China has recently signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands, a fact that was more evident in Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s decision to skip Monday’s meeting at the White House. In his place, he sent his foreign minister.
“The Pacific Islands themselves, at least some of them, are very good, frankly, at pitting China and Washington against each other or just defending themselves after a long period of time when nobody cares about them.” Bruce said. Jones, who studies the region at the Brookings Institution.
“Now a lot of countries are paying attention, and a lot of countries are getting ready to invest. And it’s handled differently among countries. Some have actually moved into deeper relations with China, like the Solomon Islands. Others are flirting with both sides, like Vanuatu. Others have doubled down on their relationship with the West, like Fiji. But it’s still an open game, and the islands themselves have a lot of effort here and a lot of capacity to use this situation to get more attention and greater investment,” he said.
On Monday, Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown highlighted the relationship his country is seeking with the world’s superpower.
“We have an opportunity here as the Pacific Islands Forum and as the United States to develop our partnerships for development,” he said.
But that is not without risk, warned Cleo Paskal, an analyst focusing on the Indo-Pacific region at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which is nonpartisan but said to lean toward political neoconservatism.
“By lumping the Pacific Islands together as one group, the Biden administration is ignoring the many differences between them,” he said. “That makes it easier for China to get into the cracks and break some of them.”
Analysts say China’s growing ambitions in the Pacific are part of the calculus for greater US engagement, but not all of it.
“The United States is changing its game. Part of that, of course, is driven by China. But I think he’s interested in saying that he’s not just motivated to resist China’s influence,” Jones said.
“The big problem that will arise is our policy on climate change and climate adaptation. The United States is one of the countries in the world most to blame for solving the issue of financing climate adaptation. If you are a Pacific island facing rapid sea level rise and storm surges and an increase in the frequency of major hurricanes, the problem is climate adaptation. It is existential. And so, that’s the real battleground in the conversation between the Pacific Islands and the West, especially the United States,” he said.
But those looking across that vast ocean say there’s one thing the leader of the world’s richest nation can’t promise: real money.
That’s up to Congress, the elected body currently embroiled in a political standoff over funding. If they don’t solve it before the end of the month, the US government will shut down.
“The United States made a lot of commitments last year at the first Pacific Island summit: very good ideas, reasonable proposals,” Peake said. “The big challenge is that, when he came to Congress, things became complicated. And I think that’s the thing: all kinds of compromises that the White House makes on this or anything else that it’s going to deal with are going to get passed by Congress.
The leaders will have a chance to discuss all this in November, when they meet, without Biden, in the Cook Islands.