The U.S. and China Want Influence in the Pacific. Here's How to Earn It | Opinion

Vice President Kamala Harris recently announced a hefty new package to boost U.S. relations with the Pacific Islands—including plans to open three embassies, develop a comprehensive U.S. strategy for the region, and increase current funding to $600 million over the next decade.

The announcement, delivered during a gathering of Pacific Island leaders, comes on the heels of a series of surprise meetings between Beijing and island officials that have left the U.S. worried.

At a time when most foreign affairs coverage centers on Russia's war in Ukraine or President Joe Biden's talks with Saudi Arabia, the Pacific is quietly and quickly emerging as a critical frontier for the next diplomatic tug-of-war between great powers. Both the U.S. and China have awakened to the economic and military potential of the strategically positioned islands—a potential long obscured by the islands' small size.

This awakening is made apparent by Vice President Harris' promise to island leaders that the U.S. would finally provide "the diplomatic attention and support that you deserve."

The support that the islands deserve—and have been vociferously calling for—is climate action from the world's biggest emitters. Instead of initiating a diplomatic tit-for-tat over regional influence, the U.S. and China should focus on fostering good will with the Pacific by embracing stronger climate commitments.

To say that the Pacific Islands are the battlefront of the climate crisis is an understatement. Climate change is contributing to eroded coastlines, diminished food supply, new disease risks, more extreme weather, displaced populations, and psychological trauma. The World Health Organization reported on numerous direct and indirect health impacts of climate change in the region, including skin disorders, malnutrition, and heat-related illnesses.

It's no surprise, then, that the islands' rallying cry at virtually every global gathering in recent memory has been about putting planet before profits. Yet both the U.S. and China keep trying to curry favor without truly delivering on this front.

On the one hand is China, which is consuming more coal than it has in a decade and even aims to ramp up coal production this year. Though the islands' appeal to get top emitters to nip their "fossil fuel addiction" especially zeroes in on coal, China's actions have routinely flouted this appeal.

An aerial view of Erakor Island
An aerial view of Erakor Island and the coastline of Port Vila on Dec. 7, 2019, in Port Vila, Vanuatu. Mario Tama/Getty Images

At last year's U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26), China and India succeeded in attenuating a key agreement that had originally called for a "phase out" of coal power. The move drew swift rebuke from island delegates, with Fiji's climate minister lambasting the weaker agreement for offering "no demonstrable measurements, no methodology" for accountability.

On the other hand is the U.S., which has resorted to picking up the pieces of President Biden's shattered climate agenda. Though President Biden had campaigned on ambitiously tackling the climate crisis, the outcomes have fallen shy of the rhetoric.

Burgeoning oil prices stemming from the sanctions on Russia recently prompted President Biden to propose new offshore drilling leases. This generates mixed messages about whether President Biden will stick to what is environmentally sound or politically expedient when the going gets tough.

And such conflicting messaging couldn't come at a worse time if the Biden administration is serious about engendering good will with the Pacific Islands.

Instead, what the U.S. and China need to show is a deep, abiding commitment to climate action that proves they appreciate what's at stake for the islands. This commitment involves championing island-backed initiatives that they've previously failed to do.

The islands have long been seeking climate reparations in the form of a "loss and damage" scheme, which would make top emitters financially compensate lower income countries for the havoc wreaked by climate change. Last year, the U.S. joined the European Union in rejecting a proposal to establish a facility for this scheme.

The islands are already navigating the financial repercussions of climate change, having to relocate medical facilities, homes, and other infrastructure. The U.S. should demonstrate its value as a Pacific partner by extending support on this front.

So could China. Recently, a group of islands asked for a moratorium on deep sea mining, just as China is setting its sights on becoming a leader in this nascent industry. Despite looming concerns about the industry's threats to healthy marine life, which is critical to the islands' ocean-based economies, China is plowing ahead with its interests to commercialize the deep sea.

To be sure, reshifting priorities to back the islands' climate concerns will be tough. But this is the only path forward for the U.S. and China to nurture lasting rapport in a region of increasing consequence.

Right now, the islands have the leverage to make this shift happen. And the U.S. and China have the chance to step up.

Henna Hundal is a public policy specialist and a researcher at the Stanford School of Medicine. You can follow her on Twitter @hennahundal.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.