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A photo published in March 2019 shows Chuuk Lagoon, Weno, in the Federated States of Micronesia (Marek Okon via Unsplash)

Can the US Get an Edge over China in the Pacific Islands?

Why actions will matter more than words.

Words: Camilla Pohle
Pictures: Marek Okon

If the US government wants an edge over China in the Pacific Islands, it needs to facilitate more meetings between the president of the United States and regional leaders, preferably one-on-one. When Pacific Island leaders fly to Beijing, they often have a one-on-one meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, but such a meeting between the leader of a Pacific Island country and a sitting president of the United States has never taken place. The White House has only conducted joint meetings with Pacific Island leaders. Sometimes even joint meetings don’t make the cut.

In March, the US Congress approved 20-year funding renewals for the Compacts of Free Association, bilateral agreements between the United States and Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands. These three countries, known as the Freely Associated States, are seen as Washington’s most important partners in the Pacific Islands because of the far-reaching nature of the agreements, which permit US military access to a vast and strategic region. But there are serious rifts in these relationships that need to be repaired.

Canceled Travel

White House talking points have emphasized the importance of the Freely Associated States, and the Pacific Islands more broadly, beyond their strategic value. But actions often matter more than words. Unfortunately, the Freely Associated States often perceive that they are a low priority for the United States when it’s not about advancing US strategic interests.

This month, Palauan President Surangel Whipps Jr. and Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine were scheduled to visit Washington for a signing ceremony for the Compacts of Free Association. However, they canceled their travel, most likely because they learned that they would not be able to meet with President Joe Biden. This added insult to injury after the Freely Associated States had endured a six-month delay of crucial US funding. In April, Federated States of Micronesia President Wesley Simina visited Washington for a signing ceremony, but did not get a meeting with Biden, instead meeting with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell.

When Pacific Island leaders are unable to meet with the US president, it sends a message that the United States does not value or prioritize them, and makes the relationships appear distant and transactional. No amount of positive messaging can change this reality.

US Attention Needed

The Federated States of Micronesia receives different treatment from the Chinese government. Last month, Simina flew to Beijing, where he was photographed shaking hands with Xi, and the two leaders signed 10 memorandums of understanding. The fact that Xi could make time to meet Simina was a show of respect and a sign that China values the bilateral relationship. Palau and the Marshall Islands recognize Taiwan, but if they were to switch, their leaders would receive the red-carpet treatment in China, too.

The costs of US inattention could be high. The United States should not assume that the Compacts of Free Association are a bulwark against Chinese influence: Beijing has been able to make many inroads there regardless of the presence of these agreements. Just in the last few years, Chinese activity in the Freely Associated States has ranged from espionage to organized crime to bribing government leaders to pressuring Palau and the Marshall Islands to switch recognition.

Increasingly Important

The United States should not expect China’s pressure to let up. In April, Whipps said that Beijing’s attempts to win over the Palauan government are “constant,” including offers to build hotels and other infrastructure projects and to increase Chinese tourism to bolster Palau’s economy. In return, Beijing expects Palau to sever its relations with Taipei. Whipps opposes this. Nevertheless, he will be up for reelection in November, and China’s pressure on Palau is likely to increase during the election.

The United States should not expect China’s pressure to let up.

The Freely Associated States are becoming increasingly important to US defense posture in the Pacific, with a greater Department of Defense presence planned in Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia. Meanwhile, the Marshall Islands hosts a US missile defense test range on Kwajalein Atoll. The costs, therefore, of prolonged political tensions between Washington and the Freely Associated States are detrimental to US interests. In early March, due to the funding delay, Heine questioned whether the United States and the Marshall Islands had come to the “crossroads” in their relationship. In December, Palau’s Senate wrote a resolution rejecting a potential US missile deployment to Palau.

If there were no tensions between Washington and the Freely Associated States, the snub of not receiving a meeting with Biden wouldn’t matter as much. But there are tensions, ranging from frustrations over delayed US funding, to concerns that the islands could become targets for China in a future conflict, to the legacy of US nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, to a general perception — borne out by recent events — that US leadership just isn’t that interested in the islands beyond their strategic value.

Missed US Opportunities

Because of the United States’ special relationships with the Freely Associated States under the Compacts of Free Association, it is particularly urgent for Biden to meet with their leaders. But more careful US attention toward the rest of the Pacific Islands is also needed.

China outstrips the United States in presidential visits to the region. Xi traveled to Papua New Guinea in 2018 and Fiji in 2014. In contrast, no sitting US president has ever visited a Pacific Island country. Biden cancelled a planned trip to Papua New Guinea in 2023, causing much disappointment there and across the region, since multiple Pacific Island leaders had made plans to be in Port Moresby to meet him. While it is difficult to quantitatively measure the impact of the cancellation on the success of the United States’ Pacific Islands strategy, it undoubtedly caused setbacks for Washington, both by snubbing Papua New Guinea and undermining confidence in US commitment to the region.

Chinese Diplomacy

China outstrips the United States by an even larger margin in sheer number of meetings at the presidential and prime ministerial level. The White House held US-Pacific Islands summits in 2022 and 2023 in which Biden met with regional leaders in a group. Xi has also held some joint meetings with Pacific Island leaders, but often meets them one-on-one. In addition to meeting with multiple presidents of the Federated States of Micronesia, Xi has met with Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape and his predecessor Peter O’Neill, Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka and his predecessor Frank Bainimarama, former Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, successive prime ministers of Vanuatu, Kiribati President Taneti Maamaau and other regional leaders. He has met with many of these leaders multiple times.

High-level diplomacy is more crucial than ever as the United States seeks to shore up its influence in the Pacific Islands. Regional leaders can expect that when they visit Beijing, they will be able to meet and shake hands with Xi, and they may even have additional time to discuss joint cooperation. They can’t expect similar treatment on a visit to Washington. If the US government wants to have strong relationships with Pacific Island leaders, it needs to work to reverse this dynamic.

Rhetoric Matters

In the absence of one-on-one meetings with the US president, and in the aftermath of Biden’s canceled trip to Papua New Guinea, presidential rhetoric also matters more than ever. In April, Biden suggested that his uncle had been eaten by cannibals in Papua New Guinea during World War II, to which Marape responded that Papua New Guineans didn’t deserve to be labeled as cannibals and urged the United States to address World War II unexploded ordnance. Papua New Guinea’s foreign minister, Justin Tkachenko, said that relations with Washington had hit a “low point” due to Biden’s comments.

As the United States competes with China for influence in the Pacific, winning that competition requires forging strong and enduring relationships. This is why rhetoric and high-level meetings and visits matter more than ever. It’s easier said than done to make time on the White House schedule, but this is precisely why a meeting with the US president holds such great symbolism, particularly in a region long ignored by the United States.

This piece was originally published by the United States Institute of Peace.

Camilla Pohle

Camilla Pohle is a senior program specialist at USIP, where her work focuses on peace and stability in the Pacific Islands. Before joining USIP, she worked for the US government as a political analyst covering the Pacific Islands, including their politics, security, and foreign policy.

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