In the Pacific Islands, US diplomatic pressure rekindles memories of neglect

As U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday unveiled a major boost in U.S. aid and diplomacy to Pacific island nations, she acknowledged they have not always received “the attention and support you deserve”.

It’s a sentiment that resonates in the region’s remote and sparsely populated island states, which are gaining attention as battlegrounds of the heated strategic competition between the United States and China after decades of diplomatic treatment after cut.

For many Pacific leaders, renewed US engagement with their region is welcome, even if long overdue.

Most of the Pacific island nations, which are meeting at an ongoing leaders’ summit in Fiji, have gross domestic product (GDP) per capita below $5,000, lack basic infrastructure and lag behind developed economies in indicators such as life expectancy, education and health. .

Countries like Vanuatu, Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands are also among the world’s most vulnerable to climate change, being just meters above sea level.

Speaking after Harris’ announcement, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said the United States “certainly looks much more like the Pacific partner that we have traditionally thought of as.”

US Vice President Kamala Harris has acknowledged that Pacific island nations have not received the support they need [File: William West/AFP]

“Obviously the United States is late for the party, but as they say, better late than never,” Robert Bohn, adviser to Vanuatu’s foreign minister and former lawmaker, told Al Jazeera.

“I’ve been telling the United States to get in the game since 1992. More is always better, but a start is always good.”

“Some of them are obviously aimed at countering China, but it’s mostly about finally getting back in the game,” Bohn added.

In a video address to the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders meeting on Wednesday, Harris said funding to help the region strengthen maritime security and tackle illegal fishing and climate change would be tripled to reach $600 million over a decade, subject to congressional approval. .

The vice president also said Washington would open new embassies in Kiribati and Tonga, redeploy the Peace Corps to the region and appoint its first-ever Pacific envoy.

But the renewed US engagement in the region has also sparked mistrust and cynicism, with some viewing the outreach as primarily concerned with China’s grip, which has dramatically expanded its influence in the region.

China’s incursions

China’s recent breakthroughs include persuading Kiribati and the Solomon Islands to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a renegade province, and signing a security pact with the Solomon Islands that has raised alarm bells. in the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

Tebao Awerika, a cabinet member in Kiribati’s parliament who skipped this year’s PIF summit amid a rift between Micronesian states and other members, expressed skepticism about Washington’s motives.

Awerika pointed to the U.S. withdrawal of its Peace Corps from Kiribati two decades ago due to alleged concerns over the safety of air travel and health facilities in the archipelago, located halfway between Hawaii and the United States. Australia.

“They could have helped us 20 years ago, but they didn’t,” Awerika, whose party leader, Kiribati President Taneti Maamau, oversaw the diplomatic move from Taipei to Taipei, told Al Jazeera. Beijing.

“The only conclusion is that they are helping us now because of our relationship with China.”

“You can tell how Kiribati views the aid they have decided to provide,” Awerika added. “They could have helped us modernize our national airline as well as our medical facilities.”

Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva, Fiji.
Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) Leaders Meeting takes place in Fiji from July 11-14 [File: Kirsty Needham]

Kiribati opposition leader Tessie Lambourne welcomed the US commitment, although she said it was a long time coming and its success would depend on its implementation.

“We have been trying for so long to get the United States back to the Pacific, for the United States to increase its presence and visibility in our country and our region, for the United States to bring the Peace Corps volunteers back to the Pacific,” Lambourne said. AlJazeera.

Lambourne said the United States could go further in assisting the development of the country, whose GDP per capita of $1,670 is only slightly higher than that of Cambodia.

“It’s a start, but I think the United States should also help develop and improve economic and social infrastructure,” she said. “For Kiribati, I think maritime security will be a priority. Therein lies the real test.

For some Pacific Islanders, however, a US agenda keen on pushing back against China is more a source of hope than cynicism or suspicion.

Peter Kenilorea Jr, deputy leader of the opposition in the Solomon Islands, where Beijing’s 2019 switch to diplomacy sparked serious political controversy, said he believed his country was on the “front lines of war politics” of Beijing.

“And to some extent the People’s Republic of China is winning, as we saw with the signing of the security pact between them and the Solomon Islands,” Kenilorea told Al Jazeera.

“Announcements are always welcome but the implementation of programs on the ground is perhaps more important.”

Kenilorea said the United States could overcome perceptions that it is catching up by providing the support Pacific island states need.

“We have the feeling that the United States is catching up. But focusing on the needs of our countries will quickly show that the United States is not catching up or responding,” he said. “They just become partners for the islands.”

#Pacific #Islands #diplomatic #pressure #rekindles #memories #neglect

Add Comment