A new framework for American engagement in the Pacific is set to be released, as the region’s representatives say the US must engage on climate change and deliver more than a ‘stop-start’ approach to its work

The United States is set to reveal its blueprint for a greater presence in the Pacific, with Joe Biden’s top Indo-Pacific official pledging new diplomatic posts beyond the “dominant islands” and more trips from Cabinet members and senior officials.

New Zealand also appears to be playing a role in a new grouping described by Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council’s coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, as “the partners of the Blue Pacific”.

Speaking at a Washington event arranged by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and backed by the Australian and New Zealand embassies, Campbell said a number of nations would meet on Saturday (NZT) to outline a joint approach to the Pacific.

“This is designed to support the vision statement of the Pacific Islands Forum, how outside and existing countries…can support that common vision, how we can ensure that our efforts are designed to build on the blueprint that they have laid out for how they want to see their region develop over time.”

The challenges facing the Pacific transcended the effort of any individual country, and there needed to be greater coordination between the US and other countries both within and outside the region to deliver what Pacific nations wanted.

Campbell said there had been a “substantial step-up of political and diplomatic engagement” between the US and New Zealand in recent months, and he wanted to work “in an unofficial and appropriate way” with countries who held an interest in the Pacific.

“I do want to just underscore, our mantra will be nothing in the Pacific without the Pacific: we are not going to be taking decisions or engagements without the closest possible engagement with Pacific partners, [and] we will do this in the most open, transparent manner.”

The Biden administration wanted to support existing institutions rather than create new ones, he said, with support for the Pacific Islands Forum “the most important thing that the United States can do in terms of regionalism”.

It was a pleasure to meet with Pacific Islands, Australian, and New Zealand Heads of Mission with @INDOPACOM Admiral Aquilino to discuss security, economic, and development cooperation. Our shared interests and values underpin a free and open Indo-Pacific. pic.twitter.com/XHvRrvTnPL

— Wendy R. Sherman (@DeputySecState) June 23, 2022

Campbell said the US intended to deliver on the issues of greatest significance to the Pacific, such as climate change, the recovery from Covid-19 and illegal fishing.

In a thinly veiled reference to China’s own activities in the region, which have included a recent, failed attempt to sign a region-wide security deal, he said: “Sovereignty is central in terms of how we think and see the Pacific. Any initiative that compromises or calls into question that sovereignty, I think we would have concerns with.”

There would be more diplomatic facilities across the Pacific, “not just to the dominant islands”, while more Cabinet members and other senior officials would visit the region in recognition “that nothing replaces, really, diplomatic boots on the ground”.

Fiji, which became the first Pacific nation to sign onto the US Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. would likely act as a regional “hub of engagement”, Campbell said.

Ahead of Campbell’s speech, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and US Indo-Pacific Command head Admiral John Aquilino met with a number of Pacific ambassadors – including Rosemary Banks, New Zealand’s representative in Washington – to discuss “security, economic, and development cooperation” according to a social media post from Sherman.

Satyendra Prasad, Fiji’s permanent representative to the United Nations, told the CSIS event there needed to be greater predictability and no ‘stop-start’ approach to how the US engaged in the Pacific, given the long-term nature of the region’s most significant issues.

“These are no three-year projects we’re dealing with, these are no five year projects: the minimum time spent on anything to do with oceans and climate, you are probably talking about a 10, 15-year transition and so there must be predictability.”

Prasad offered a blunt response when asked how he viewed geopolitical competition in the region, saying: “In the political contest between US and China, climate change is winning…that’s how we frame our security perspective.”

“If the choice is that you ask a particular country and they are not able to help you, you then have a choice to say ‘No, we’re not going to provide that service to people’ or you go to another country that perhaps is not the traditional partner and you say to them, ‘Can you help us?’”
– Fatumanava-o-Upolu III Pa’olelei Luteru, Samoa’s permanent representative to the United Nations

Gerald Zackios, the Marshall Islands’ ambassador to the US, said Pacific leaders were aware internal divisions could not become a weakness to be exploited by others.

However, it was important to recognise regional institutions like the Pacific Islands Forum were not a replacement for direct dialogue with countries.

“We appreciate very much and value Australia and New Zealand as close partners, and they have long served as a vital bridge between the Pacific Islands and the wider circle of allies, but discussions between our partners in Australia and New Zealand about the islands cannot be mistaken for a necessary and direct discussion with the island nations,” Zackios said.

“Time, effort and resources are needed to understand each one of us individually, before really understanding how we work as a region – there aren’t any shortcuts here.”

Climate change needed to be seen as a security concern rather than a moral priority, while regional fisheries policy was also critical given the impact of global superpowers on the local industry.

Fatumanava-o-Upolu III Pa’olelei Luteru, Samoa’s permanent representative to the United Nations, said there was enthusiasm about expanding the South Pacific Tuna Treaty between the US and Pacific nations into a broader trade agreement for the region.

Fatumanava sought to offer reassurances about Pacific nations’ dealings with China, saying countries were “very much aware” of the broader ramifications.

“When you are dealing with key decisions taken by politicians, and they have a responsibility in certain areas to provide certain services…

“If the choice is that you ask a particular country and they are not able to help you, you then have a choice to say ‘No, we’re not going to provide that service to people’ or you go to another country that perhaps is not the traditional partner and you say to them, ‘Can you help us?’”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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