U.S. and China Tussle for Influence in Pacific

Vice President Kamala Harris urged the Pacific Islands on Wednesday to "stand united" and help defend existing rules and standards, as the United States announced a significant economic and diplomatic boost to slow the advance of China's influence in the region.

"At a time when we see bad actors seeking to undermine the rules-based order, we must stand united," Harris told leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in a virtual address. "We must remind ourselves that upholding a system of laws, institutions and common understandings—this is how we ensure stability and, indeed, prosperity around the world."

Among the measures was a tripling of funding—to $60 million per year over the next decade—to address illegal fishing, climate change and other issues. USAID and the Peace Corps would also return and expand their footprint in the region, Harris said at a fisheries meeting, after announcing plans to appoint America's first-ever PIF envoy.

"We recognize that in recent years, the Pacific Islands may not have received the diplomatic attention and support that you deserve," she said. "We are going to change that."

VP Kamala Harris Addresses Pacific Islands Forum
Vice President Kamala Harris addresses the Pacific Islands Forum in Suva, Fuji, via a video link on July 13, 2022. As part of Washington's renewed engagement with the Pacific region, Harris announced plans to open two new embassies—in Tonga and Kiribati—and triple annual funding for the region. WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images

Harris didn't mention China by name, but Washington's decision to "significantly deepen" its engagement with the Pacific island nations comes shortly after the Chinese government alarmed the U.S. and its regional allies by signing a security agreement with the Solomon Islands in April.

Officials in Beijing one-upped their American counterparts again one month later, when China's top diplomat, Wang Yi, launched an eight-day, 10-nation tour of the Pacific. This concluded with a number of bilateral economic agreements and an ambitious attempt to ink a wide-ranging cooperation framework with all 10 governments.

Harris' PIF address also included plans to establish new embassies in Tonga and Kiribati, both of which agreed deals with China in May. The U.S. had already announced its intention in February to reopen an embassy in the Solomon Islands, before Honiara embarrassed Washington by turning to Beijing.

U.S. officials, along with counterparts in Canberra and Wellington, fear China could use its opaque policing agreement to establish a long-term military presence in the Solomons, despite repeated denials by Beijing and Honiara.

Previewing Harris' PIF appearance, a senior Biden official speaking on condition of anonymity told reporters on Tuesday that the U.S. was confident its economic incentives would be viewed favorably by the region.

"We're not asking countries to choose; we're not asking countries not to have relations with China. It's a big, important country," he said "Everything we do with regard to the region will be in consultation with the region. We'll listen and consult closely."

The four-day PIF gathering in Suva, Fiji, began after the unexpected withdrawal of Kiribati over the weekend. Tessie Lambourne, Kiribati's opposition leader, told The Guardian on Tuesday that the Micronesian nation's government pulled out because of Chinese pressure. Beijing denies the claim.

The PIF broke with convention this year by separating its annual leaders' summit from its meeting of "dialogue partners," which include both the U.S. and China. While the climate crisis remains at the top of the forum's agenda, observers believe the decision will allow Pacific leaders more time and space to discuss their region's new role as an arena for great power competition between Washington and Beijing.

The American vice president's invitation to address the PIF—a courtesy not extended to Chinese leaders—could be seen as a small win for the U.S. as the two superpowers tussle for influence in the Pacific.

In June, the U.S. enlisted the help of Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the U.K. to further increase economic and diplomatic engagement with the region through the Partners in the Blue Pacific initiative.

Part of the newfound geostrategic importance of the Pacific Islands lies in the unique fact that three of the PIF's 18 members still retain formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, whose government is officially recognized by only 13 UN member states and the Holy See.

Following the last in-person PIF summit in 2019, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati broke off ties with Taiwan in favor of China within weeks of one another. Beijing's push to slowly squeeze what remains of Taipei's diplomatic space has the potential to destabilize East Asia, the front line of the contemporary U.S.-China rivalry.

The U.S. sees itself as offering a credible alternative to China, whose involvement in its immediate neighborhood has been marked by what the State Department describes as "a range of increasingly problematic behaviors." The Chinese government has made unlawful maritime claims and is militarizing the South China Sea, the department notes.

China is also guilty of "predatory economic activities such as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, investments that undermine good governance and promote corruption, and human rights abuses," it says.

Beijing argues that, unlike the West, China sees the Pacific Islands as its equals. Its engagement with the region aims to help economic development and promote democracy, it says.

Wang Wenbin, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said Wednesday that Beijing welcomed more support for the Pacific Islands.

"At the same time, we believe that all countries, when pursuing cooperation with [Pacific island nations], should follow the principle of openness and inclusiveness, and not target any third party or harm their interests," Wang told a press conference in the Chinese capital.

"I noted the statement from a U.S. official who said the U.S. is not asking [Pacific island countries] to choose between China and the U.S., and that its cooperation is not about countering China. We hope the U.S. will deliver on its statement," he said.