US' hasty diplomacy in the Pacific is led with impure intentions, and can't solve regional problems
Published: Sep 04, 2022 08:33 PM
US and the Indo-Pacific Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

US and the Indo-Pacific Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The recent sharp increase in US attention toward Pacific Island countries is a marked contrast to its near-abandonment of the region in previous years. From April, when Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council's Indo-Pacific coordinator, toured the Solomon Islands, Fiji and Papua New Guinea, to August, when Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman convened a meeting of Pacific Island countries' representatives in New Zealand, the Western media have frequently reported on the US strengthening ties with the region amid "China's growing diplomatic influence." 

Despite early related reports, the Biden administration's formal announcement Friday of the first US-Pacific Island Country Summit that will take place September 28-29 has raised eyebrows. The summit, which invites 12 regional countries, including the Solomon Islands, Kiribati as well as four countries that maintain so-called "diplomatic ties" with the island of Taiwan, is the latest effort amid intensive US diplomacy with Pacific Island countries. However, Biden's efforts in this region have been generally doubted, as Craig Singleton, senior China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, called it "haphazard engagement strategy" which has resulted in "very few meaningful deliverables," which makes sense to some extent, as the Biden administration's approach in this region has been treating symptoms but not the disease. 

However, such "hasty" diplomacy is merely superficial. In essence, the US has been attempting to change its overall strategy in the South Pacific region for decades, turning this region into a new battlefield to contain China, and using it as a springboard to further expand to other areas such as the South China Sea. 

In addition, the invitation of four countries which have so-called "diplomatic ties" with the island of Taiwan to participate in the conference also clearly demonstrates the US' intent to indirectly consolidate its relationship with Taiwan. The background is that China's success in cooperating with the South Pacific in less than 20 years has triggered a "sense of crisis" to the US, which changed Washington's attitude. From this point of view, the diplomatic motives of the US in this region under the "stimulation" of a third party, namely China, are impure. Thus, it's difficult to truly respond to and solve the real demands from the perspective of regional countries.

It is easy to imagine that countries in the South Pacific do not want to be involved in this wishful "strategic competition" by the US. The rival envisaged by the US has no competitive intentions but only the hope of having equal and mutually beneficial cooperation with countries in the South Pacific, rather than using them as pawns. These countries are also reluctant to be reduced to tools or even weapons.

For the summit, the primary concerns of these countries are people's livelihoods, economic development, and infrastructure construction. They have been plundered, exploited, oppressed by Western countries and have had to comply with the economic layout of the US suzerainty for a long time, with a very unitary economic model and extremely backward development. Some countries have been reduced to a supply of raw materials for the US and European countries. This backwardness, which is completely out of step with the times, is a negative consequence of the colonial era. In fact, many Pacific Island countries have chosen to deepen their cooperation with China precisely because they have seen the success of mutually beneficial cooperation with China, in which China has an effective response to their needs.

The driving force of holding the summit is all about competition against China. Under such motivations, no matter how good-looking the agenda, programs and capital raised in the meeting are, they serve only US interests, rather than the interests of South Pacific Island countries. This is also the reason why Pacific policies of both the US and Australia have failed, and will fail in the future. US' "cooperation" that only calculates about its own fate and interests is unjust. 

When US and Australia offer so-called assistance to regional countries, they often attempt to change local governance models and foster pro-Western forces. The money is only the surface, the more important factor is where that money has gone. 

A major pending deliverable of US in this region is the extension of soon-to-expire treaties, called Compacts of Free Association (COFA), with Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands. Despite being independent sovereign states, the three countries have very close ties with the US. The COFAs, signed with the US upon termination of the Trusteeship Agreement, actually turns the US government into a suzerain over the three island countries. The US was not too concerned about the extension of the COFAs in the past when it neglected the Pacific region strategically. But with the rise of strategic importance of the region to the US, the treaties became more and more significant to Washington. 

Both Palau and the Marshall Islands remain so-called "diplomatic relations" with the island of Taiwan. Although Micronesia severed "diplomatic ties" with Taiwan island in 2019, the US still retains great influence over the country. In fact, Washington has always viewed the three as its bases in the Pacific region to further exert its impact and will tie them tightly to its strategic orbit.  

However, in these three countries, where there are strong pro-US forces, there are also quite a few people of insight who are not willing to permanently stay in the US shadow. There have thus been many controversies during the process of implementation of their treaties with the US. The US used the Marshall Islands as a nuclear testing site, causing severe risks to local environment and people. Therefore, the US should also listen to the voices of locals. 

Inviting the four Taiwan "allies" to the summit implies that the US is attempting to forge South Pacific region in to a pro-Western exclusive area, or specifically speaking, an area that excludes China. But no matter how the US calculates, the only side that could determine the fate of the region is the Pacific Island countries themselves. In the face of different intentions from China and the US in terms of cooperation, regional people are wise enough to make their judgments. 

The article was compiled by a Global Times reporter based on an interview with Chen Hong, president of the Chinese Association of Australian Studies and director of the Australian Studies Centre at East China Normal University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn