When back-to-back cyclones barreled through Vanuatu at 230 kilometers per hour in early March 2023, upending homes and downing power lines, the Pacific family responded swiftly. Even as the Pacific Island Country (PIC) of 319,000 people began surveying the mammoth task of reassembling from the ruins of an unprecedented natural disaster — two vicious storms followed quickly by the rumble of twin earthquakes — assistance was on the way.
A Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) C-17A Globemaster flew a rapid assessment team, shelters and water purification supplies roughly 2,000 kilometers to Vanuatu, while dozens of Republic of Fiji Military Forces (RFMF) engineers, medical experts and other service members deployed along with civilian emergency response personnel. The French Armed Forces mobilized air and naval assets to deliver water storage tanks and United Nations relief supplies, and French Soldiers cleared roads of uprooted trees and conducted medical evacuations. South Korea approved U.S. $200,000 in humanitarian aid. “The government hopes this assistance will help Vanuatuans affected by the cyclones swiftly return to their daily lives and recover from the damage,” Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said.
The wave of lifesaving support to Vanuatu reflects the renewed vigor with which like-minded nations are engaging in the Pacific Islands to build resilience against challenges such as rising sea levels, public health threats, economic shocks and resource exploitation. It is a multilateral undertaking of immense consequence, as this vast region faces the existential threat of climate change amid a geopolitical tussle for influence and burgeoning concerns over the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) intentions. One Pacific leader has even accused Beijing of bribery, spying and other political warfare.
Within a week of the cyclones’ landfall, the Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Canberra and its contingent of 600 troops, landing craft, helicopters, medical facilities and supplies had arrived in Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila, joining two RAAF aircraft conducting assessments and surveillance. The Australian government also approved an additional U.S. $3 million in support, as well as logistics expertise. “This announcement and deployment builds on Australia’s long-standing disaster preparedness and humanitarian assistance activities in Vanuatu and across the region,” Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong stated. “In times of crisis, the Pacific family can rely on Australia to work with them.”
Two weeks earlier and 1,000 kilometers east of Port Vila, Canberra demonstrated its commitment to the region as Wong announced U.S. $4.5 million in funding to Fiji to rebuild nine schools damaged by cyclones in 2020 and 2021. “Most importantly, not just only to rebuild them but rebuild them to higher standards so they are Category 5 cyclone-proof, and we will also work to ensure they are sustainable, using renewable energy and local resources,” Wong said, according to The Fiji Times newspaper.
As Fiji’s largest bilateral development assistance partner, Australia has provided more than U.S. $160 million in direct budget support to the island nation of 950,000 people since 2020, including for “enhanced climate and social resilience,” according to the Australian High Commission.
Such collaborative projects are gathering pace across this region of 30,000 atolls and islands that dot a sweep of ocean representing 15% of the planet’s surface and incorporating the Ring of Fire, where shifting tectonic plates subject the populace of 12 million to frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Climate change, meanwhile, is increasing the severity and regularity of cyclones and flooding, which cost the South Pacific region an estimated U.S. $500 million a year. Among the host of initiatives announced in early 2023:
New Zealand is providing U.S. $4.5 million in funding for Fiji in addition to its earlier pledge of U.S. $9 million for climate initiatives, The Fiji Times reported. “I want to acknowledge that much of our conversation in relation to the impact of climate change on our communities is an area that we can ensure that partners work alongside Fiji, work alongside New Zealand, to ensure that we can meet the significant challenge that we have,” New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta said during a news conference with Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka.
The Seoul-funded Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) will provide up to U.S. $10 million for a new medical center in Tamavua, north of Fiji’s capital Suva. “We wish to place on record our gratitude to the government and people of Korea through KOICA for this very timely project,” Rabuka said, according to The Fiji Times.
In Samoa, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) awarded U.S. $1.5 million for community-led initiatives on climate change adaptation, disaster risk preparedness and response, and sanitation and hygiene, the Samoa Observer newspaper reported. “The U.S. government is committed to strengthening the ability of the Pacific Island region’s most vulnerable communities to live healthy and secure lives, free from disaster-related disruptions,” USAID Deputy Development Advisor Patrick Bowers said.
Japan provided grants to Samoa for 14 new police vehicles while local officials unveiled two upgraded schools partly funded by Germany, the Samoa Observer reported. “Education is playing a key role in equipping younger generations with the knowledge they need to address the global challenges we face,” said Beate Grzeski, Germany’s special envoy for the region.
Taiwan donated dialysis machines, water filtration units and other supplies to establish a blood dialysis center in Labasa in northeast Fiji. Taipei’s two decades of support to Fiji includes deploying teams to perform more than 8,000 outpatient services and surgeries. “Taiwan will continue to provide assistance to Fiji in the health care sector, as well as in other areas, to further our friendship and partnership,” Joseph Chow, the self-governed island’s representative to Fiji, said in a statement.
BACK ON TRACK
The sharpened focus on fortifying the region against shocks, natural or human-made, is partly rooted in the tremors emanating from the 2022 security pact between the PRC and the Solomon Islands. Although the details remain secret, the deal is believed to permit Chinese warships to replenish in the Solomon Islands and allow Chinese security forces to provide law enforcement assistance in the island nation, which does not have a military. Analysts contend it could be a precursor to a permanent Chinese military presence, which both nations have denied. “We’ve recently seen in the form of the Solomon Islands some actions by the PRC to potentially grab a foothold,” Adm. John Aquilino, Commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said in a March 2023 speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore. “I think it woke a number of us up to ensure we spend more time, engage with, [and] provide assistance and support to Pacific Islands. … We’re back on track, I would say, and we continue to engage in ways that are meaningful and helpful for those nations.”
That includes USAID’s 2022–27 Strategic Framework for the Pacific Islands. The multibillion-dollar, public-private initiative seeks to strengthen community resilience, democratic governance and economic growth in 12 PICs, to “better respond and adapt to climate and disaster impacts, pandemics, and economic shocks, with strong political systems that champion democratic values, good governance, human rights, and promote equity and inclusion for all Pacific Islanders.”
As the U.S. and its allies and partners boost investment in the Pacific, Beijing has decreased its financial assistance. The PRC’s bilateral aid and development financing to PICs fell from a high of U.S. $334 million in 2016 to U.S. $188 million in 2020 — lower than its contribution in 2008, The Fiji Times reported in March 2023. Meanwhile, nearly one-fourth of Fiji’s external debt as of 2020, about U.S. $190 million, was owed to the state-run Export-Import Bank of China, according to Fiji’s central bank.
Lingering concerns about Beijing’s commitment to the region extend beyond finances and won’t be allayed by its belated appointment of a special envoy to the Pacific in early 2023. The previous year, 10 PICs rebuffed an expansive Chinese proposal to deepen economic and security ties. Then-Micronesian President David Panuelo warned that the plan would pull the region “very close into Beijing’s orbit,” and he later urged lawmakers to switch the nation’s diplomatic allegiance from the PRC to Taiwan, The Diplomat magazine reported. Panuelo alleged that Beijing was using gray-zone tactics such as bribery and spying to secure Micronesia’s support, or at least its neutrality, should the PRC invade Taiwan, which it claims as its territory.
“One of the reasons that China’s political warfare is successful in so many arenas is that we are bribed to be complicit, bribed to be silent,” Panuelo wrote in a March 2023 letter. “To be clear: I have had direct threats against my personal safety from PRC officials acting in an official capacity.”
Beijing dismissed the accusations.
Despite the PRC’s limited gains in the region, such as the Solomon Islands pact, the “full picture suggests Beijing’s attempt to make the Pacific a Chinese lake has stalled and will face strong counter-currents for the foreseeable future,” Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Center, a Hawaii-based independent research institution, wrote in a March 2023 article for the Asia Times website. “Much of the opposition Beijing faces in the Pacific is stimulated by the Chinese government’s own actions — a classic characteristic of overreach.”
READY TO RESPOND
As Panuelo was exposing Chinese coercion, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Oliver Henry had just completed a weeklong deployment to Micronesia to counter illegal fishing and bolster partnerships with communities on remote atolls. As part of Operation Rematau, the cutter’s crew delivered more than 2,000 kilograms of supplies donated by residents and businesses in Guam, including food, clothing, educational materials, toys, fishing gear, marine fiberglass repair kits and water pumps. The visit coincided with a search and rescue exercise by the U.S. Coast Guard and local public safety and disaster management officials. “Continuing to build the capacity of our FSM [Federated States of Micronesia] partners, especially in search and rescue, remains a high priority,” Capt. Nick Simmons, commander of U.S. Coast Guard Forces Micronesia/Sector Guam, said in a news release.
Elsewhere in the region, about 300 New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) personnel deployed to Fiji aboard the sealift vessel HMNZS Canterbury for Operation Mahi Tahi in March 2023, which included humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) drills, amphibious landings, and delivering books and other supplies to schools. Fijian Sailors also received training in landing craft and helicopter operations aboard the HMNZS Canterbury. “Responding to disasters throughout the Pacific is a key role for the NZDF and we need to train as often as we can in order to deliver this critical capability when it’s needed,” Col. Mel Childs, commander of the joint task group leading the exercise, said in a news release. “I’ve been lucky to have trained and worked with the Republic of Fiji Military Forces throughout my career and we enjoy a great relationship with our RFMF friends.”
Security agreements among allies and partners illustrate how such endeavors have flourished. In late May 2023, Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the U.S. signed a defense cooperation deal that will enhance the PNG Defence Force’s training and infrastructure. It follows an agreement allowing PNG personnel to ride aboard U.S. Coast Guard and Navy vessels patrolling for smuggling, illegal fishing and other illicit activities.
PNG also is negotiating a security treaty with Australia that would “reflect the evolving nature of our shared security interests, recognizing that nontraditional security challenges, such as climate change, cybersecurity, and economic elements of statecraft, affect our strategic environment,” the nations said in a January 2023 statement. A month before, Canberra signed a security partnership with Vanuatu covering areas ranging from HADR and policing to biosecurity and maritime safety. The agreement “is a practical expression of the family first approach to peace and security in our region,” Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles said in a statement. “It reflects Australia and Vanuatu’s ongoing commitment to working together as members of the Pacific family to address shared security challenges.”
Those challenges include Vanuatu’s long road back from the devastation of the twin cyclones — a disaster that affected more than 80% of the population across the nation’s 80 islands, with an economic wallop exceeding half the gross domestic product of U.S. $956 million. Allies and partners plan to be there for the duration. Just weeks after the storms, the U.S. State Department announced it would open an embassy in Port Vila to “facilitate areas of potential bilateral cooperation and development assistance, including efforts to tackle the climate crisis.” By early April 2023, the U.N. World Food Programme had spearheaded the delivery of 30 metric tons of food rations and medical supplies, including donations from Fiji, and the installation of emergency communications systems.
Even as recovery efforts gained traction, partners were pledging long-term investment in the region. The United Kingdom launched its Pacific Partnership Facility in Suva to award grants for vulnerable communities to build resilience against climate change, The Fiji Times reported in March 2023. In Samoa, the Asian Development Bank committed U.S. $10 million for natural disasters and health emergencies, part of the Pacific Disaster Resilience Program that began in 2017 and is set to run through 2026. Japan pledged U.S. $37 million over two years through the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) to help four PICs — PNG, Samoa, Timor-Leste and Vanuatu — transition to renewable energy, including solar and hydropower. “Many Pacific nations have developed blueprints to combat multiplying climate crises, despite their negligible role in greenhouse gas emissions,” Kanni Wignaraja, the UNDP’s bureau director for Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement.
Only such a unified and comprehensive response to the region’s challenges will prevail, Fiji’s Rabuka noted. “Set against the backdrop of increasing geopolitical interests in our region, coupled with the real threats posed by climate change,” he said, “solidarity in our Pacific family is ever so critical.”