Time for Washington to end its ‘Backyard Strategy’
Published: Oct 17, 2022 11:57 PM
Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

At the first US-Pacific Island Country Summit, the US released a document outlining its vision for ties with Pacific Island countries. Yet despite Washington's sweet talking of "cooperation" and "partnership," the real agenda is to increase its presence and influence at its "maritime backyard."

President Joe Biden may have filled his remarks with all kinds of honeyed words, but what American officials are doing and saying smack of big-power politics. The Pacific Island countries have not been among America's most favored partners since the end of World War II, but that has changed after a vigorous and rapidly growing cooperation with China in recent years finally caught America's attention and raised some eyebrows. Only four months after the second China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers' Meeting, the US hastily put together a summit, breaking its record of holding the ASEAN-US Special Summit six months after the ASEAN-China Special Summit. 

In his remarks, Biden made no secret of his desire to expand US presence in the region, and stressed "the security of America" in his intriguing explanation of the reason for engaging the Pacific Island countries, "because it's very much in our interest as well as, I hope, yours." The first-ever Pacific Partnership Strategy that the US unveiled also points to its desire to turn Pacific Island countries into a shield and buffer zone to serve its goal of countering China. In addition, the US announced $810 million in funding to Pacific Island countries, five times the stingy $150 million it promised to the 10 ASEAN countries earlier this year, but still a drop in the bucket compared to the tens of billions of military aid to Ukraine. 

The US probably believes its sudden interest in the region and lip service of massive assistance are enough to entice the interlocutors from Oceania. But for the Pacific Island leaders, getting tangled up in geopolitical competition is apparently not on their to-do list. 

Several days before the summit, Fijian Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama spoke at the 77th session of the UN General Assembly, urging developed nations to deliver on their overdue $100 billion climate finance commitment. The US and Australia happen to be among the top carbon emitters per capita. The Marshall Islands and Solomon Islands publicly resisted the Biden administration's efforts to deepen US influence in the region on the eve of the summit, with the former concerned about the economic, environmental and health legacy of US nuclear weapons testing and the latter refusing to sign an 11-point summit declaration "designed to provide a framework for intensified U.S. engagement in the Pacific." 

With those nuclear concerns still unresolved, the US and its AUKUS partners are bringing new risks of nuclear proliferation to Pacific Island countries. As some media analysts noted, the US, trying to "instrumentalize" Pacific Island countries, cannot meet the countries' demands on climate change, development and local people's well-being. 

From South America across its border to Africa on the other side of the globe, from the Middle East, its long-entangled war zone, to the Pacific Islands, the US is haunted by the paranoia that someone might "take over" its sphere of influence. It is trying desperately to control each region as tightly as it could, and turn them into its own backyards. 

Pacific Islands are not the backyard of any country, still less an arena for geopolitical games. A summit based completely on the will of the US is doomed to fail. If the US really wants to work with Pacific Island countries, changing its outdated mentality of confrontation would be a good start. 

The author is a commentator on international affairs, writing regularly for Xinhua News Agency, CGTN, Global Times, China Daily etc. He can be reached at xinping604@gmail.com.