U.S. bolsters commitment to Pacific island nations

U.S. bolsters commitment to Pacific island nations

Top Stories | Feb 3, 2020:


The United States has provided extra money to increase capacity among eight Pacific island nations through the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), as the U.S. continues its efforts to offer enhanced security across the Indo-Pacific region.

The eight small nations will benefit from additional assistance and training as the U.S. contributes to security in the region while countering increasing People’s Republic of China (PRC) aggression there.

Nations to receive the new U.S. assistance include Fiji, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu.

U.S. President Donald Trump signed the U.S. $738 billion NDAA in December 2019, which includes a U.S. $21 billion increase over the 2019 spending plan and expands the U.S. Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Initiative, which has boosted key partners’ maritime domain awareness and ability to monitor and patrol territorial waters and exclusive economic zones.

The U.S. has also been working to strengthen its Compacts of Free Association between the United States and the Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, and Palau, which are up for renewal in the next few years.

Adm. Philip S. Davidson, commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said the U.S. has “opportunities to partner with our strong allies, Australia and France, and strong friend, New Zealand, to improve information-sharing and maritime cooperation as the Pacific island countries address the challenges associated with illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, natural disasters, narcotics trafficking and economic coercion from Beijing” in his February 2019 testimony to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee.

The committee recognized that strengthening alliances and cooperation in the Pacific islands region is a critical element in the implementation of the U.S. National Defense Strategy (NDS) in the Indo-Pacific, in its June 2019 report on the 2020 NDAA. “In particular, the NDS calls for expanding Indo-Pacific alliances and partnerships, including through regional security cooperation mechanisms, in order to develop a networked security architecture capable of deterring aggression, maintaining stability, and ensuring free access to common domains,” the report said.

Moreover, the committee said the inclusion of the eight Pacific island nations in the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Initiative would support the NDS goals to strengthen key alliances and partnerships, deter aggression and engage in strategic competition, which are summarized in the executive summary of the 2020 NDAA. (Pictured: A Papua New Guinea Defense Force Soldier and U.S. Marine Corps combat engineer work on an erosion prevention project during an exercise in Lae, Papua New Guinea, in September 2019.

The law also calls on the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command to establish one or more open-source intelligence fusion centers to enhance cooperation with Pacific island countries.

Australia has been the largest aid provider in the Pacific island region for decades. However, the PRC has been rapidly increasing its investments in the region to rival Australia’s in recent years.

Unlike Australian and U.S. support that does not require repayment, PRC funding most often goes to recipient nations in the form of loans.

Adding to concerns, a November 2019 report by the International Monetary Fund classified several Pacific island nations — including six of the eight to benefit from U.S. NDAA spending — as being at high or moderate risk of debt distress. The report listed the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Tonga at high risk and Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu at moderate risk.

The PRC extended many loans in the region between 2006 and 2010 and typically provides debtors a five- to 10-year grace period, Jonathan Pryke of the Lowy Institute told CNN.

PRC interest in the Pacific island region is motivated by increasing its influence for military and diplomatic purposes and in large part by its quest to control rich natural resources found there, observers contend. Many of the island nations have large stocks of timber, fish and minerals. China has invested heavily in Papua New Guinea, which has gold, nickel, timber and natural gas — more than any other Pacific island, according to CNN. For example, the PRC completed a U.S. $85 million road upgrade in Papua New Guinea in 2017, CNN reported.

PRC vessels also have been causing problems in the region’s waters by illegally harvesting crucial fish stocks, according to media accounts. Illegally harvested or transshipped tuna in the region costs well over U.S. $600 million a year, according to a 2016 report from the Pew Charitable Trusts.