By Angela Vasovic, Zachary J. Vertefeuille, Eva Parker-Bulgakova, Vanessa Martin, Charles Ammon, Vyas Keplar, Gracie Messier, Emily Roberts, and Will Bame
In one of his radio fireside chats lauding the American war effort in February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt referred to the strategic importance of the Pacific Islands.
“The islands that lie between Hawaii and the Philippines, these islands, hundreds of them, appear only as small dots on most maps. But they cover a large strategic area,” he said.
Eighty years later, this statement still holds true as the United States, along with other global powers, is making strong relations with the region a diplomatic priority. The Pacific Islands, composed of three ethno-geographic island groupings–Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia—lie in the South Pacific. Among thousands of islands, many of which are uninhabited, are twelve independent states: Fiji, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, Nauru, Samoa, Solomon Islands, and Tonga. The picture-perfect colorful contrasts of the blue Pacific and lush greenery of the tropical climate are home to approximately 12 million people who speak several hundred distinct languages.
The U.S. and the Pacific Islands have deep and long-standing ties. The engagement was particularly intense during World War II, as U.S. and Allied forces fought an island-hopping campaign against the Japanese in battles such as Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands and Tarawa in Kiribati. Other islands also played important roles during the Pacific War, including Tonga, which served as a major transit hub for the Allies’ shipping lanes, and Vanuatu, which hosted Allied military bases. Thousands of individuals, both military and civilian, perished during these operations, but they paved the way for Allied advances in the Pacific and their eventual victory. Allied cooperation with Pacific Island nations during WWII proved instrumental in their eventual independence.
Eighty years later this region remains a key focus for the Indo-Pacific Strategy.
In June 2022, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. announced a joint effort to promote sustainable development in the Pacific Island nations, entitled “Partners in the Blue Pacific.” In September 2022, President Joe Biden hosted the first U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit to demonstrate the United States’ deepening cooperation on key issues. Plans for new U.S. diplomatic posts and for official recognition of the Cook Islands and Niue as sovereign states were announced at the same time. Increasing the diplomatic presence in the region is part of the new Indo-Pacific strategy, which also includes building connections within and beyond the region, driving island prosperity, bolstering regional security, and building regional resilience to transnational threats.
To strengthen its diplomatic presence, the U.S. is reimaging the process for setting up a diplomatic presence. On Feb. 1, the U.S. reopened its embassy in Honiara, Solomon Islands, less than one year after the intent to reopen it was announced (and thirty years after its closure).
In an interview with Virtual Student Federal Service intern Eva Parker in November 2022, Charge d’Affaires to the Solomon Islands Russell Comeau expressed, “This is the old school romanticized version of diplomacy where you’ve got little more than your wits and a fair bit of flexibility to chart your own path … we’re a modest but mighty team on the frontlines of the geopolitical, geostrategic effort of the next generation between competing powers. This is where the rubber meets the road, and a lot is going on in these places, and we have a lot of catching up to do. And a lot of trust to build amongst the local populations and governments—the more folks we can get on the ground, the better, to show our sustained commitment.”
The Department of State currently is planning to open new posts in Tarawa (Kiribati), Nuku’alofa (Tonga), and Port Vila (Vanuatu) to expand on the existing presence in Fiji and Papua New Guinea.
The president’s budget request for 2024 incorporates substantial funding for America’s Pacific partners, including $7.1 billion in mandatory funding over twenty years, to implement amended and extended agreements, with states receiving tailored support based on their needs. This will expand the assistance these countries have been receiving. The Solomon Islands receives assistance from USAID for issues including infection prevention, sanitation, and pandemic business recovery. Kiribati receives unique sustainable fishing and maritime law enforcement assistance to prevent and control illegal fishing in its waters. The Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, and Nauru will receive technical assistance and funding for secure broadband internet connectivity. Meanwhile, U.S. military strategy has been focusing on renewing contracts, expanding security networks, and securing partners for logistical supply purposes.
Part of the U.S. and its Allied Partners’ focus on the Pacific Islands has been to balance China’s growing Indo-Pacific influence. China is working to expand a trade route around the world through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
According to Zongyuan Zoe Liu of the Council on Foreign Relations, China views the Pacific Islands as a “critical air freight hub in its so-called Air Silk Road.”
To protect its BRI investments, in April 2022, China signed a bilateral security agreement with the Solomon Islands, making it the eighth nation in the South Pacific to earn the highest priority classification in Chinese foreign policy as one of Beijing’s “comprehensive strategic partners.” As a condition of this agreement, the Solomon Islands agreed to sever its ties to Taiwan.
The Pacific Islands find themselves once again at the center of great powers’ attention. The United States is becoming a prominent ally by establishing salient diplomatic presence and substantive support aimed at regional long-term wellbeing and resilience. America has not forgotten its long-ago battle comrades. Keeping these beautiful islands safe and prosperous is as important to the world as it is to the people who call it home.
Angela Vasovic is a program analyst in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations’ Office of Master Planning and Evaluations. Zachary J. Vertefeuille, Eva Parker-Bulgakova, Vanessa Martin, Charles Ammon, Vyas Keplar, Gracie Messier, Emily Roberts, and Will Bame are Virtual Student Federal Service interns in the Office of the Under Secretary of State for Management.