The Biden administration’s latest engagement of the Pacific – – most recently with visits to Tonga, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and Australia – – is welcome and needed. At a critical time, it builds upon other mechanisms and agreements such as Partners in the Blue Pacific and AUKUS to boost allied economic, diplomatic and security ties to the region.
This outreach by Washington comes as Beijing’s increased presence and security pact with the Solomon Islands has prompted the West to strengthen Oceania aid and security ties to counter Chinese influence.
One outcome has been the US State Department’s increase in spending for diplomatic personnel and new embassies in the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu and Kiribati.
Additionally, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s separate trips to Tonga and Papua New Guinea last week were meant to offset China’s overtures to states in a part of the world that have long been considered vital to Australia’s and America’s maritime security.
Put simply, the concern is that China’s increased investment in the Pacific will give it greater influence in the region and with it, a weakened commitment to transparency, human rights and the rule of law.
Both the US and Australia are worried that China’s increased presence in the region threatens their abilities to supply and operate with one another and their partners in the event of hostilities.
This comes against a backdrop of the Chinese Communist Party’s bellicose behavior and expansive claims in the South China Sea, Xi’s support of Putin’s war in Ukraine, a ramped up pressure campaign against Taiwan and fighting with Indian troops in the Himalayas.
Other concerning aspects of the CCP’s behavior that give many in the Pacific community pause include the crackdown in Hong Kong, the mistreatment of its Uyghur Muslim and Christian communities, its refusal to cooperate with investigations into the origins of COVID and repeated incursions into Japanese territorial waters and airspace.
To be fair, the US has also made missteps in its handling of relations with Beijing. Two notable examples are 1) President Biden’s maintenance of Trump-era tariffs on China that have failed to change Beijing’s trade practices and have raised prices for US consumers, contributing to inflationary pressures; and 2) the keeping of sanctions on Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu which has obstructed efforts to resume military-to-military communications between the two powers.
Washington’s flurry of diplomatic and military engagement in the Pacific are a signal to the region’s leaders that there are alternatives to Beijing’s political and economic coercion. The US is demonstrating that it is willing to partner with local states on issues of common concern such as defense, economic opportunity, climate change, humanitarian aid, development assistance and technology infrastructure.
Also, Messieurs Blinken’s and Austin’s messaging during their trip had an additional, sharper point of focus: the U. is committed to the Pacific Islands and takes seriously attempts to obstruct the free flow of goods, ideas and people in regional waters.
As an example, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s trip to Papua New Guinea – – the first by a US defense secretary – – was devoted to strengthening military ties and modernizing the island nation’s forces. The country’s strategic geography has made it an important partner for Washington in its intensifying rivalry with Beijing for influence in the region.
Another concern of the Biden administration in the Pacific is Beijing’s infrastructure-focused Belt and Road Initiative which has left many participating countries severely indebted to China. One such country is Tonga which has external debt amounting to 36% of its GDP, of which two-thirds is owed to China’s Export-Import Bank.
To this end, during his visit to Tonga Secretary Blinken emphasized the importance of China upholding transparency and sustainable finance practices with its Pacific investments.
While in New Zealand, Secretary Blinken discussed approaches for dealing with Beijing in addition to reviewing ways in which Wellington could join AUKUS, the trilateral security agreement between the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom that allows the sharing of nuclear submarine technology and the building of nuclear-powered submarines for Australia.
Although New Zealand’s nuclear-free status prohibits it from participating in AUKUS’ submarine endeavors (referred to as AUKUS Pillar I of the agreement), Wellington is exploring participation in AUKUS Pillar II which focuses on interoperability in the fields of cybersecurity, AI, undersea capabilities, quantum computing, hypersonic munitions and defense, electromagnetic warfare, information sharing and defense innovation.
Secretary Blinken’s and Secretary Austin’s trip culminated with a productive visit to Australia to attend the biennial 13-nation Talisman Sabre training exercises (which were tragically disrupted by an Australian army helicopter accident) and for the 33rd Australia-US Ministerial Consultations. Agreements struck at the summit involved expanded joint security drills, defense in space, increased US military presence in Australia as well as improved intelligence sharing.
Additionally, Canberra and Washington agreed to a guided-missile production deal which will involve Australia manufacturing missiles for both countries. The agreement was structured to build up Australia’s military self-reliance as well as to address concerns about decreasing American munitions stockpiles as Washington struggles to keep up with supplying weapons to Ukraine and helping Taiwan prepare for a possible future Chinese invasion.
This new arrangement with Canberra is intended to help address concerns and requests by some Republicans in Congress that the Biden administration submit a supplemental budget to supply the US Navy and Australia with sufficient funds for the production of Virginia-class attack submarines. The hope is that the missile deal will further show Australia is a stalwart ally who is willing to help address Washington’s current military industrial shortfalls.
In conclusion, amid threats to the stability of the Indo-Pacific, outreach to the Pacific Islands has taken on a greater importance. Washington is now involved in a multi-year effort to equip its allies and distribute weapons systems across the Pacific to build military deterrence against China. As part of this, the Biden administration is working to strengthen its regional ties, project unity and improve the US military’s capabilities to operate with partners during times of war through joint training, such as the likes of Talisman Sabre war games.
While the White House was caught flatfooted with China’s 2022 security pact with the Solomon Islands, it has been right to form partnerships in response to the region’s changing dynamics. These new relationships will need to be nurtured and strengthened with sustained economic aid, diplomacy and military assistance in the years ahead.