Having continuously sensationalized regular cooperation between China and the Pacific Islands, the United States has finally run out of steam and recently established the informal “Partners in the Blue Pacific” initiative, along with Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. According to a joint statement by the five countries, the PBP will provide assistance to Pacific islands such as Fiji and Samoa and strengthen their economic ties with the rest of the world to promote economic and diplomatic relations between the PBP member countries and those in the Pacific.
Despite the noble-sounding rationale, anyone with eyes can see that the PBP, set up by the United States and Australia, is aimed at China. In other words, it is a direct response by the United States, Australia and the other countries to the direction that China’s relations with the Pacific Islands have taken of late, and its principal aim is to contain China’s rapidly growing influence among the Pacific Islands. Taken on top of the Five Eyes alliance previously formed by the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the encirclement China is subjected to in the Pacific by the United States, Australia and the others would appear to be airtight.
That said, how far can these anti-China alliances really go? As Fiji’s U.N. ambassador, Satyendra Prasad, has said, the relationship between the Pacific Islands and Washington needs “great predictability” and cannot be “stop-start.” In reality, prior to the China boosting relations with the Pacific Islands, the United States had very little interest in them. The United States has placed a renewed emphasis on the region only because of China’s expanded influence there.
This suggests that the United States is not itself motivated to develop close ties with the Pacific Islands, and that the basis for relations between the United States and the Pacific Islands is not a strong one. On the one hand, the Pacific Islands occupy a relatively weak position on the U.S. global strategic map; on the other hand, the United States’ economic and diplomatic ties with the Pacific Islands are few and far between to begin with. As an example, in the U.S. State Department’s declassified Indo-Pacific Strategy report, the United States makes scant mention of the Pacific Islands and attaches rather less importance to them than it does to Southeast Asia and South Asia.
In addition, the Pacific Islands have weak economic foundations and relatively little economic and trade cooperation with the United States and other Western countries, and as a result, the United States has very little economic interest in the region. Not only that, but while these islands are heavily dependent on external economic assistance for their development, the strategic benefits they might bring to the United States are too limited to attract any significant U.S. aid. This is why Prasad complained of the “stop-start” relationship between the United States and the Pacific Islands: The United States has provided only a bare minimum of sporadic and token aid in order to maintain its relations with the Pacific Islands.
Now, in a bid to stop the expansion of Chinese influence in the Pacific Islands, the United States has hastily assembled the PBP, but this provisional anti-China group is not internally motivated. In one sense, since it is designed to contain China, the PBP will therefore be adjusted dynamically as China’s relations with the Pacific Islands develop. Once China slows the pace of developing its relationship with the Pacific Islands, or should that relationship not be as militarily productive as the United States seems to imagine, the PBP will naturally be laid to rest.
In another sense, just how effective the PBP will be depends on the appetite of the Pacific islands. After all, they are all heavily in debt, and most of them require external assistance. Now that both the United States and China are coming to the Pacific Islands to jockey for influence, the island countries can simply sit tight and jack up their prices. As Prasad said, “The governments and peoples of the Pacific Islands welcome the establishment of long-lasting partner relations with the United States.” The problem with this is that, if the United States cannot satisfy these countries’ appetites, then the Partners in the Pacific island countries will not think highly of the Blue Pacific initiative. Moreover, if the United States agrees to establish a long-term and lasting partnership with the Pacific islands, it will mean providing them with long-term assistance. If the strategic importance of the Pacific islands were to diminish significantly, the United States would be locked into honoring its promise to maintain high levels of investment in the region, which would be more trouble than it is worth.
Where the Pacific islands are concerned, although they may simultaneously reap certain benefits from both China and the United States, they risk the chance the United States will walk out on them. Therefore, the Pacific Islands need to weigh pros and cons, so that, when the time comes, they do not wind up empty-handed. All in all, the Partners in the Blue Pacific initiative will exacerbate the competition between the United States and China among the Pacific islands, but it will not prevent China from normalizing relations with them.