U.S. looks to claim victory in Pacific Islands influence battle with China

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A Biden administration diplomatic push in the South Pacific is poised to mark a win in efforts to counter growing Chinese influence in the region.

The State Department is close to renewing strategic partnership agreements with the Pacific Island nations of Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands after six months of intensive negotiations, according to Special Presidential Envoy Ambassador Joseph Yun.

The renewal of those agreements, called Compacts of Free Association, will effectively firewall those three countries from a relentless drive by Beijing to displace the U.S. as the region’s dominant superpower.

But the battle for the loyalties of other Pacific Island countries remains fully in play.

Beijing is actively working to exploit perceptions of U.S. regional disengagement, backed by an arsenal of economic and security incentives to woo island nations into alignment with China.

“I am encouraged by the warm reception I've gotten from our three [COFA] partners and I want to say that I would like to conclude the agreements by the end of this year,” said Yun, who the State Department appointed in March to oversee compact negotiations. “There is a feeling among the Pacific nations and that includes COFAs as well, that over the past decade or more the United States could have paid more attention to the Pacific.”

Yun’s hint of an imminent deal with the three so-called Freely Associated States comes just days ahead of the first-ever U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit which will take place Sept. 28-29 in Washington, D.C. The two-day meeting will symbolize the “history, values, and people-to-people ties” between the U.S. and Pacific island countries, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement earlier this month.

The COFA negotiations and next week’s summit reflect the Biden administration’s diplomatic catch-up in a region where China has made deep inroads in recent years. The U.S. got a rude awakening to the costs of inattention earlier this year, when China and the Solomon Islands inked a controversial security pact.

That agreement — sealed despite strong objections from the U.S., Australia, Japan and New Zealand — was a testimony to China’s relentless efforts to boost its influence in the region. And U.S. suspicions about the potential malign impact of that security pact appear to be proving true.

Solomon Islands denied port access to a U.S. Coast Guard cutter last month due to unspecified “bureaucratic reasons” and subsequently imposed a temporary moratorium on all foreign naval ships.

That has spurred a flurry of U.S. diplomatic outreach to the Solomons and other Pacific island nations to reverse perceptions that Washington has abandoned the region. Yun was part of that outreach — and appears to be on the verge of the effort’s first notable success.

The COFA extensions he’s close to sealing will give the U.S. the right to deny outsider access to those countries’ waters, airspace and land. The treaties in turn obligate the U.S. to provide the three countries a host of government services, financial assistance, and rights of visa-free migration. The COFAs for Micronesia and Marshall Islands expire in 2023, while Palau’s expires in 2024.

Yun noted the strategic importance of the South Pacific sea lanes that thread past Pacific island countries and link Hawaii with the Philippines. But he was adamant that U.S. diplomatic efforts are not just about ensuring geopolitical dominance in the region.

“It is not just about China, and I want to emphasize that [Pacific island countries] remain important for us whether we are involved in a big competition with China or not,” Yun said. “My goal in this is to have a compact agreement that is sustainable in the long term that gets them to be economically self-sufficient, and that helps their own development especially in terms of public health, education, infrastructure, and environment.”

In return, those COFA countries provide the U.S. reliable port access ports from which it can leverage sea and air power over the increasingly expansive reach of People’s Liberation Army naval units.

“As Beijing seeks to develop a true blue water navy (one capable of operating globally), the US right of strategic denial in FAS territorial seas and the forward presence enabled by US defense facilities in and adjacent to FAS territories will grow more important in constraining China’s force projection and maintaining free and open maritime corridors in the Indo-Pacific,” said a United States Institute of Peace report released Tuesday.

Yun is uncertain if the COFA model is replicable with other Pacific Island countries but is adamant that the U.S. can’t risk shifting its attention from the South Pacific again. “Whether we open new initiatives to other countries that are modeled on COFA that remains to be seen … [but] I do think that we need to get closer to other countries in the Pacific.”

Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii), co-chair of the Congressional Pacific Islands Caucus and a longtime proponent for closer U.S. ties, also advocates for sustained engagement to fend off China’s expanding reach in the region.

“These are some of our closest partners in the entire Pacific and we have had solid relationships with them for decades now,” Case said. “China has its eyes on those islands and would love nothing more than to drive a wedge between the United States and our compact country friends and we can't let that happen.”