Fourteen small independent nations make up the Pacific Island states. Usually, this region does not garner a great deal of attention from those focused on major trends in international affairs. However, as is often the case for small countries, the Pacific Islands are group of nations where more powerful states — such as the United States, China, Australia, and Japan — are all seeking greater influence.
Traditionally, as the largest donor to the Pacific Islands, Australia has had the greatest amount of external influence in the region. However, in recent years, Pacific Island nations have diversified their donor support, most prominently through loans for infrastructure and development from China. Beijing’s recent activity in the region has made some worry that Pacific nations will shift away from supporting the military and diplomatic efforts of Western countries such as Australia and the United States. These concerns have only been exacerbated by recent moves from the Solomon Islands and Kiribati to cut official diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of establishing ties with mainland China.
Now, friction over climate change — a key issue for these small island nations — has left the majority of the region feeling let down on multiple sides. On August 15, the leaders of Australia, New Zealand, and several Pacific nations, as well as representatives from the United States and China, met for the annual Pacific Island Forum in Tuvalu. Talks at the forum were tense. The major source of that tension? Disagreements over climate change.
Leaders at the forum directed most of their ire toward Australia. Given the heavy impact of climate change on the small island nations of the region, many leaders had hoped that they would all come together to write a joint communiqué calling for multinational action on climate change. However, Australia, which under the Morrison government has recently invested in its coal industry, had reservations about what should be included in the document. According to reports from attendees, Australia refused to include references to coal, specific calls to limit global warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius, and a commitment to zero emissions by 2050 in the document.
Climate change is a matter of life and death for those living in the Pacific Islands — so much so that the Tongan prime minister reportedly cried during a presentation for leaders made by climate change activists during the pre-forum retreat. However, rather than commitments to address the root of the problem, in the wake of their disappointment, all Pacific Island leaders have gotten are commitments to foreign aid that will mitigate the effects of climate change from three of their most influential regional supporters.
Pacific Island leaders don’t feel these nations are doing enough to solve the problem. Australia committed $500 million in renewable energy and climate change resilience to countries in the region the same week as the forum. In response, island nation leaders spoke out, indicating that as a major emitter, Australia is actually a source of climate change devastation for countries in the region.
Other powerful nations in the region — namely, the United States and China — don’t have a much better response. At the forum, both countries made commitments to helping the Pacific Islands deal with climate change. While the U.S. representative emphasized a continued commitment of “billions of dollars in ‘resilience’ projects and renewable energy,” the Chinese representative promised to “make a positive contribution to the sustainable and green development of Pacific Island countries.” Nevertheless, other actions by the U.S.and Chinese governments tell a different story. The United States pulled out of the Paris Agreement in 2017, and has since retreated from its global leadership role in reversing climate change. Meanwhile, China is the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world and invests billions of dollars in coal plants in over two dozen countries worldwide.
The United States, in particular, has much to lose if it does not double down on efforts to increase cooperation with Pacific Island states. The South Pacific has long hosted a significant U.S. military presence that is crucial to ensuring freedom of navigation in the region. Moreover, given historically close ties between the United States and many Pacific Island nations, the Trump administration has recognized the role that these nations can play in its new foreign policy platform of ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). Losing influence in the Pacific Islands might lead to a lesser commitment of these countries to support U.S. goals.
To avoid such an outcome, the United States government has made several moves to demonstrate U.S. interest in strengthening ties with Pacific Island nations. According to the U.S. Defense Department’s June 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, “[i]n the Pacific Islands, we are enhancing our engagement to preserve a free and open Indo-Pacific, maintain access, and promote our status as a security partner of choice.” The report outlines a set of plans to support military coordination, maritime security, and foreign military financing in the region. Moreover, in early August, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced negotiations with Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau to renew a deal called the Compact of Free Association, through which the U.S. offers financial support and security assurances in exchange for airspace and maritime access. Trump invited leaders of these three nations to the White House in May in order to drive home the value of the association agreements to the U.S. government.
Beyond security support and current levels of financial assistance, Pacific Island leaders would see a greater commitment to climate change as a real boon to the U.S.-Pacific relationship. How can the United States demonstrate such a commitment? The most effective action that Washington could take would involve greater leadership on global climate change cooperation. However, this is unlikely under the current administration.
A more realistic option for the United States would be to partner with Australia and other regional leaders, like Japan, to build a coordinated response to climate change in the Pacific Islands. The foundation for such a partnership has already been set. In November 2018, Australia, Japan, and the United States signed a trilateral agreement to pool resources and expertise in providing infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific.
In late September, Pacific Island leaders took their plea for greater attention to the environment to meetings about climate change at the United Nations. They made clear their need for stronger support and asked global leaders to combat climate change to the greatest extent possible. The question is: Will the United States and its allies find a better way to support these nations?
Naima Green-Riley is the YPFP Asia-Pacific Fellow and is a PhD candidate at Harvard University’s Department of Government, where she studies U.S. and Chinese foreign policy with a focus on public diplomacy. Before beginning her PhD program, Naima served as a U.S. diplomat at the Department of State for five years, working in Egypt during the Arab Spring and China during the Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia.” She tweets at @naimagreenriley