The second US-Pacific Islands Forum Summit wraps up in Washington today (Tuesday), as President Biden hosts leaders and senior officials from 18 Pacific Island nations.
Here’s what’s on the agenda:
- 🤝 President Biden has formally recognised the Cook Islands (pop: 17,000) and Niue (pop: 1,900), which both get limited recognition around the world in part due to their unique status (e.g., Niueans and Cook Islanders are citizens of New Zealand)
- 🚀 The US and Palau (pop: 18,000) are reportedly discussing deploying US Patriot air defence systems in the Pacific nation
- 💰 The US is also committing $40 million for infrastructure in the region, including for undersea internet cables, and
- 🌎 They’ve announced various climate initiatives, responding to an earlier Pacific declaration that it’s the “single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security, and well-being of the peoples of the Pacific.”
What’s behind all this? The summit’s aim is to show Pacific leaders that they have options, as Beijing continues to build its influence in the region:
- China and Timor Leste (a Pacific Islands Forum observer) just upgraded their bilateral ties over the weekend, and
- The leader of Solomon Islands actually skipped this summit despite being nearby at the UN last week, in a move seen as reflecting his more China-aligned policy (he met President Xi in Beijing this July).
Intrigue’s take: So why are two powers competing for influence in some of the world’s smallest and most remote nations?
In part, it’s the same reason powers fought over the islands in WWII: when a rival gets a foothold, it can control vast swathes of the surrounding ocean. The US has long anchored its Pacific security in this kind of island chain strategy, and China has long seen this all as an attempt to ‘contain’ it.
But each side’s success or otherwise will depend on its ability to really hear and respond to the priorities of the Pacific Island nations themselves. That likely explains Biden’s repeated assurances that the US “hears” the Pacific.
Also worth noting:
- The Pacific Island leaders also travelled to Baltimore to watch the Baltimore Ravens play the Indianapolis Colts (the Ravens lost). There are around 200 NFL players with Pacific Island ties.
- Former US president JFK fought in the WWII battle of Guadalcanal, in what is today Solomon Islands. His daughter, the current US ambassador to Australia, retraced JFK’s rescue swim there last month.
- Tuvalu (pop: 11,000) amended its constitution this month. It now includes a new definition of statehood, declaring the nation will continue to exist even if its islands disappear due to rising sea levels.