Biden’s presidency brings new opportunities and challenges for the region, writes Jay Caldwell.
In 2021, the Pacific is not getting any less crowded or complex. Pacific rulers will need to adjust to a shifting global agenda, with the Biden-Harris administration being the most recent factor to consider. President Biden’s political priorities appear to be a radical departure from President Trump’s “America First” mantra, offering Pacific countries more benefits than risks.
The big takeaway for the Pacific is that Biden will seek to reinvigorate multilateralism. This generates considerable optimism, as the countries of the Pacific are adept at using global forums to defend their common interests, especially climate change. Trump’s sacking and weakening of multilateral forums have created some frustration for Pacific island states.
Conversely, the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to international agreements and organizations, including the World Health Organization and the Paris Agreement, has been praised across the region. Biden will find willing multilateral partners in a more assertive and active region than the one he last saw as vice president in 2016.
However, optimism about America’s ability to strengthen global institutions needs to be tempered. The new administration will need the patience of its bilateral partners, as ambitions may well be thwarted by domestic challenges. As the recent storming of the United States Capitol graph illustrates, Biden rules a fractured country.
On a pragmatic level, there will be increased diplomatic work required from the Pacific nations to reestablish relations and relations with the United States, and access to the new administration. Observers should also expect a rotation of some political posts at U.S. diplomatic posts in the region, leading to inevitable discontinuities until new relationships are forged.
On the issue of climate change, Pacific leaders will welcome the appointment of former Secretary of State John Kerry as special envoy. His appointment is a signal of the administration’s higher ambition on climate change, the greatest security threat facing the Pacific Islands.
Fijian Prime Minister Bainimarama extended a first invitation to President-elect Biden to see “first-hand” the effects of climate change in the Pacific, as he called for “American leadership at the helm of the international campaign to limit the rise in global temperature”. However, neither Biden nor Kerry speak for the United States as a whole. Deep divisions persist over the climate issue in the country, and special interests continue to have a preponderant voice.
A big question for the Pacific is whether Biden’s diplomatic approach will ease the confrontational relationship with China. The Pacific island countries live with the reality of a multipolar order and the sharp edges that result from the great competition of powers. New US Secretary of State Antony Blinken foreshadowed a continuation the country’s strong stance on China, but a willingness to work cooperatively on climate change, health emergencies and nuclear weapons control. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also called for dialogue to restore and cooperation to renew.
But Pacific leaders will not want to see reduced tension traded for more limited US engagement and presence in the region. Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor and Samoan Prime Minister Tuileapa Sailele Malielegaoi spoke about the opportunities that competition brings to the Pacific Islands. Any disengagement by the United States from the region could upset the precarious balance that the leaders of the Pacific Islands have learned to navigate and could reduce their negotiating capacity.
To this end, the leaders of the Pacific Islands must remain cognizant of John Kerry’s influence on the overall shape of United States foreign policy. Along with his obvious passion for climate reform, he has a reputation for looking for bargains. Commentators noted the risk that Kerry seeks to elevate climate policy to the point of compromise with China over other priorities and commitments to smaller partners.
Biden’s strong public statements in the past about his commitment to be in the Pacific region for the ‘long-haul’ should provide some comfort, as should the appointment of advisers with considerable experience in the Indo-Pacific – including coordinator Kurt Campbell. The leaders of the Pacific Islands will work to ensure that the new administration maintains its commitment to the strategic and diplomatic concerns of the region.
The change of administration will have a more direct impact on the North Pacific. The United States is in the process of renegotiating key provisions of the Free Association Covenants with the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau.
Biden’s campaign pledge to restore Medicaid health funding to RMI residents living in the United States has been well received in the region, and Congress has subsequently agreed after lengthy periods of advocacy. and negotiation by a group of committed legislators.
It remains to be seen whether the Biden-Harris administration will be open to further policy changes that deepen relations with the Covenant states. A proactive political stance by the United States would include further steps to address the lingering effects of nuclear testing being felt across the region.
As the region begins to move from closed borders and control of COVID-19 to deploying vaccines to their populations, vaccine diplomacy is likely to become a key theme. Micronesian states have been rushing to acquire US vaccines since the start of the year, while others are still awaiting vaccines from Australia, New Zealand and China who have pledged their help. Friends of the Pacific must take the lead to make vaccine deployment as quick and safe as possible across the region.
The Biden-Harris administration will need to shed the 2016 mood and adapt to a new peaceful environment with more assertive bilateral partners and committed competitors. Pacific island nations can expect U.S. engagement in the region to be more balanced and professional under the new administration, but it won’t lead to positive changes overnight. The greatest promise lies in a renewed commitment to multilateralism and climate action.
The Pacific Islands can be useful partners for the United States, providing numbers in global forums and moral authority on issues such as climate change and development. There is potential to reduce tensions between the United States and China, but this should not come at the cost of a US disengagement from the region. Biden’s presidency offers more benefits than risks for the Pacific Islands, but it will take considerable diplomatic effort and careful judgment on the part of Pacific leaders to seize the opportunities.