The United States this week formally recognised Niue as an independent state. Yes, I had to look up the details about the island. Niue is tiny. It covers just over 1,000 square miles and has a population of about 1,500. It has no military but it is of strategic importance as an island in the Pacific Ocean.
And after decades of effective neglect, territories in the Pacific are once more of considerable importance to Washington – the Biden administration also said it would view the Cook Islands as a sovereign nation and would establish diplomatic relations with both countries.
This comes as concern grows about the increasing influence of China, the main geopolitical rival of the United States.
Last year an announcement that the Solomon Islands had reached a security agreement with Beijing caused alarm in Washington amid fears that it could lead to China opening a base there. The Biden administration has stated time and time again that the United States is a Pacific power. The last thing it wants to see are Chinese troops being deployed to islands in the Pacific, ostensibly to protect some of the large investments made by Beijing in the region.
A Chinese military presence would potentially disrupt the ability of the US to quickly move forces across the Pacific to Asia in the event of a conflict.
The Pacific island nations are spread across a wide area, between Hawaii, Australia and Asia. Thousands of Americans died fighting the Japanese in island after island across the Pacific during the second World War. During the conflict the American military built hospitals, airfields and other infrastructure. But on the other hand some islands also had to deal with the legacy of US nuclear testing.
Over recent decades the US effectively backed away and disengaged. When US secretary of state Antony Blinken visited Fiji last year he was the first holder of the office to travel there in more than three decades.
But Washington now has a new Indo-Pacific strategy. In the early summer Biden had planned to become the first sitting president to visit a Pacific Island nation, but his scheduled trip to Papua New Guinea had to be cancelled due to the debt ceiling crisis in Washington.
This week visiting Pacific leaders were feted by the Biden administration and given access to its most senior figures including the president, the secretary of state Blinken, the treasury secretary Janet Yellen and special envoy for climate John Kerry. As part an overall charm offensive the leaders were brought by special train to Baltimore and given guest tickets to a football game. At macro level they were offered funding, aid and support, particularly to deal with the impact of climate change.
“We hear your warnings of a rising sea and they pose an existential threat to your nations”, Biden said at a meeting in the White House with the prime minister of the Cook Islands.
Biden said the US had opened new embassies in Tonga and the Solomon Islands, established a USAID mission in Fiji, and returned the Peace Corps to Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, and Vanuatu. He said Washington had signed an economic agreement with Micronesia and that the US was “going to double the number of academic exchanges of Pacific Island students”.
Biden also spoke about a 10-year $600 million agreement to support the sustainable development of fisheries. He said the United States was committed to ensuring the Indo-Pacific was “free, open, prosperous, and secure”.
Later this year US is to send a coast guard vessel “to collaborate and train with Pacific Island nations”.
Biden seemed to hark back to the battle by Americans against Japan in the region 80 years ago. “Like our forebearers during World War Two, we know that a great deal of the history of our world will be written across the Pacific over the coming years.”
Before the political meetings senior administration officials had told journalists that engagement with the Pacific Islands was “really not about who we are against but what we are for”. But they also made clear the spectre of China is very much influencing its new concentration on the region. “But there’s also no question that there is some role that the People’s Republic of China has played in all this. No question that it’s assertiveness and influence, including in this region, has been a factor that requires us to sustain our strategic focus.”
At the G20 summit earlier this month the US highlighted plans to rival China’s “belt and road” infrastructure initiative across Africa and Asia with a similar western-backed project. The US is equally determined not to allow Beijing become dominant in the Pacific.
The great game continues.