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Japan, U.S. increase cooperation to enhance Pacific islands’ security

Joseph Hammond

Japan and the United States are increasingly working together to strengthen the security and stability of Pacific island nations, which are vital to the security and geopolitics of the wider Indo-Pacific.

Japan and the U.S. are full dialogue partners of the 18-member state Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), which is a key intergovernmental organization that aims to enhance cooperation among the region’s countries and territories. Both nations also provide aid to the region.

The PIF receives direct funding from Japan, according to Japan’s embassy in Fiji. Since 2018, Japan has contributed U.S. $580 million in development assistance to the region. On the PIF’s 50th anniversary in August 2019, Washington pledged U.S. $36.5 million in new assistance, in addition to the U.S. $350 million it contributes annually, according to the U.S. Department of State. (Pictured: Attendees participate in a cultural exchange during the 50th Pacific Islands Forum in August 2019 in Funafuti, Tuvalu.)

“The two biggest concerns for Pacific island partners, North and South, are climate resilience and IUU [illegal, unreported and unregulated] fishing,” Gregory B. Poling, senior fellow for Southeast Asia and director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told FORUM.

IUU fishing threatens Pacific islanders’ food security and their pocketbooks, Poling said. Seafood constitutes 30% of islanders’ diets and fishing funds up to half of each government’s budget. About 45% of Tuvalu’s 2016 budget, for example, came from tuna fishing in its national waters.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC), which operates the world’s biggest long-range fishing fleet, is viewed as the leading perpetrator of IUU fishing, according to the U.S. State Department.

“In 2018, the PIF released the Boe Declaration, which for the first time declared what the regional security threats are, and No. 1 is climate, No. 2 is maritime security threats,” Poling said. “In this instance, they are mostly talking about IUU fishing.

“Climate and IUU fishing are two issues where we have an obvious comparative advantage, particularly IUU fishing, where the U.S. and Japan are longtime partners,” Poling said. He cited the bilateral “shiprider” agreements that enable Pacific island law enforcement officers to counter illegal activity in their nation’s exclusive economic zones while aboard U.S. Coast Guard vessels and Tokyo’s diplomatic efforts to represent Pacific island fishing interests internationally.

Climate resilience is another area where Japan and the U.S. can cooperate to strengthen ties and resilience across the Pacific island region, he said.

The U.S. Agency for International Development’s Climate Ready project is helping Pacific islands protect lives and property in the face of environmental stress caused by climate change. The program has allotted U.S. $24 million toward these goals between 2017 and 2022, the agency reported.

“These are the highly visible engagements on the ground,” Poling said. “So, investing in mitigation and adaptation to climate disasters is a big deal.”

Tokyo and Washington are also working together to enhance the infrastructure and connectivity of the Pacific islands, the U.S. State Department said. Both contribute to efforts to bring electrification to Papua New Guinea and, together with Australia, the construction of a U.S. $30 million undersea fiber optic cable for Palau.

Joseph Hammond is a FORUM contributor who reports from the Indo-Pacific region.

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