COVID, climate, China, Compacts: Blinken’s Pacific agenda

Antony Blinken meets QUAD members in Australia this week.

A decade since the last visit of a U.S. Secretary of State to the Pacific Islands, the U.S. President’s chief foreign advisor, Antony Blinken visits Fiji briefly today  in an effort to re-engage with Pacific nations.

Blinken arrives after vising Australia, where he met other members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or QUAD) grouping; India, Japan and Australia. He will participate in a virtual meeting with Pacific Island leaders to discuss “the climate crisis, ending the COVID-19 pandemic, disaster assistance, and ways to further our shared commitment to democracy, regional solidarity, and prosperity in the Pacific,” according to an official release. The details of which regional leaders will participate in that call—which has been convened directly by the U.S. Embassy in Suva— have not been disclosed.

Secretary Blinken will also meet with Fiji’s Acting Prime Minister, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, as  Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama remains in Australia recuperating from heart surgery. Other Fiji cabinet ministers and foreign affairs officials will be in attendance. Blinken will also meet civil society representatives. It is understood no meetings have been arranged with Opposition members of Fiji’s Parliament, unlike Australia, where he met members of the Labor Party.

Hillary Clinton was the last Secretary of State to visit the Pacific when she  attended the Pacific Islands Forum Post Forum Dialogue Partners meeting in the Cook Islands in 2012. The USAID regional office in Suva had closed in 1994 (reopening in Papua New Guinea in 2011) , and her visit was designed to demonstrate renewed engagement.

A decade later, Blinken is attempting to convey a similar message, that the U.S.’s relationship with Pacific nations is valued and important.

As in 2012, the geopolitical context is dominated by jostling for influence between the U.S. and China.

“We think it is important for the Pacific Island nations to have good relationships with as many partners as possible, and that includes China as well as the United States,” Clinton said ten years ago in the Cook Islands.  

However amidst concern over the China-Russia alliance, and building tension on the Ukraine border, Blinken said this week: “We share concerns that in recent years China has been acting more aggressively at home and more aggressively in the region and indeed potentially beyond.”

The Pacific agenda

“The Pacific part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy is vitally important, and in the category of 90 percent of life is showing up or showing up; but more than showing up, I think you’ll see some very concrete things come out of the visit to Fiji. I’m not going to get ahead of myself, but we’ll have a few things to talk about when we get there.  So I’m very much looking forward to that,” Blinken told journalists at the start of his Pacific tour.

“This is an historic occasion,” U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Tony Greubel said in Suva this week. “We’re so much looking forward to the Secretary of State visiting [Fiji]  for the first time since 1985 and our chance to share common values with Pacific Island countries and enhance all of our bilateral and multilateral ties.”

The ongoing COVID health crisis, supporting vaccinations and the post-COVID economic recovery, will likely be prominent in today’s talks with Pacific representatives, as some Pacific nations grapple with their first wave of infections and others struggle to vaccinate their populations.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen the region even more beholden to donors, and the range of actors “making diplomatic overtures” to the Pacific remains as dynamic now as it did in 2012.

In a region where official development assistance is said to be higher on a per capita basis than in any other region, U.S  official development assistance is delivered across a number of sectors, including fisheries, and through regional organisations such as the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (whose representative will meet Blinken today). Just this week,  U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Stratton has been in Fiji waters as part of a Pacific regional operation to monitor illegal and unreported and unregulated fishing and other illegal maritime activities.

The other  critical development  issue for northern Pacific Island states is the future of the financial assistance commitments through the Compacts of Free Association.

Reuters reports Marshall Islands Ambassador in Washington, Gerald Zackios, as saying there have been no substantive Compact talks since the last U.S. election. The Marshall Islands and FSM compacts are due to expire next year, and Palau’s in 2024.

This means other critical issues such as climate mitigation, the legacy of U.S. nuclear testing and U.S. bases on Pacific Island soil have not been discussed either. Will they, and the many other deeper issues of ensuring development assistance that truly serves the interests and needs of Pacific peoples, not just a political agenda, be given attention today given Blinken’s brief stopover?

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