Uncle Sam comes calling again – will stay put this time

By Dev Nadkarni

For the past three years the United States has rather desultorily talked of increasing its engagement in the Pacific Islands region. Its deepening commitment in the Middle East and the global financial crisis have left little time and resources for it to firm up any concrete plans in the area despite having made grand statements about serious involvement from time to time.

Even the project to relocate the armed forces base from Okinawa in Japan to Guam – at US$15 billion, the largest ever project in the Pacific – has been progressing at a slower pace than originally planned.

But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to New Zealand and Australia last month and the tone and content of her statements about the region clearly signal a renewed resolve to step up this engagement that has long been talked about but followed up with little action.

The US has clearly been watching the growing influence of the Asian powers in the world’s final and largely unexplored frontier for natural and marine resources. That is what has caused the periodic statements from Washington reminding everybody about its interest for a stake of the state of affairs in the Pacific.

Soon after she was appointed to her job in the Obama administration, Secretary of State Clinton, during a regional visit in early 2009, had said the US “was not ceding the Pacific” to anybody. That was the most definitive indication that the country had well and truly realised that its influence was waning in the region and it needed to pull up its socks. There was a clear sense of urgency in that statement.

In 2007, the US hosted the Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders – a triennial meeting of heads of government and senior officials from the Pacific islands region in Washington. Traditionally held in the country’s island territories like Hawaii, that was the first ever time that the meeting had a mainland venue –significantly, too, in the national capital. Weeks before the PICL conference, a senior official said the country wanted to reverse any perception that it had withdrawn from the Pacific.

The US reminded the leaders and the world that it had named 2007 as the “Year of the Pacific”. With that theme, the US sought to bring the importance it gives to the region into sharp focus within its own policy-making machinery as well as to get various government departments and agencies –including Defence, Coast Guard, Interior, the Peace Corps, among others – to work together in a “whole of government approach” to make the country’s presence felt in the region.

That year the US sent then Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill to attend the Pacific Islands Forum Meeting where he went on record saying his boss, then Secretary of State Condolezza Rice, Clinton’s predecessor, wanted to attend too but couldn’t because of the situation in North Korea.

Hill also used the opportunity on that occasion to see around the region, visiting Honiara and Wellington – where he famously asked for New Zealand’s “eyes” to view the Pacific – praising the country for its long and friendly relationships with the Pacific island states.

Shortly thereafter he also announced scaling up the US’ diplomatic presence in the region with an extended facility in Suva – a reality today, with the large new building in Tamavua.

Clinton’s November visit to New Zealand removed the last vestiges of any misgivings between the two countries on New Zealand’s hitherto rigid and non-negotiable stance on the issue of access to nuclear powered vessels into its territorial waters. The thaw was perceptible with both countries agreeing to joint military exercises in the South Pacific about once a year.

It is hoped that the newfound love between the two nations will also pave the way for better trade relations, even a possible free trade agreement in the not too distant future – the possibility of which had been in the doldrums because of New Zealand’s strident anti-nuclear stand.

But what is most significant is Clinton’s announcement in Hawaii that the US would reopen Suva based Pacific Agency for International Development office at the cost of US$ 21 million. The political reality in Fiji did not seem to matter to the Secretary of State or her government. This is a major departure from her predecessor Rice’s stand on Fiji’s military regime who had criticised the Fiji situation saying the Pacific could not evolve into an area where strongmen unilaterally decided the fates of their countries and destabilised the democratic foundations of their neighbours.

The change of stand three years down the line clearly indicates that the US has realised that New Zealand and Australia’s isolationist tack has not only not worked but is now proving counterproductive to western interests. This tack has obviously given the impetus for Fiji to forge closer relationships with Asian powers, notably China and made it a major player in the region.

The redrawing of continental shelf boundaries of sovereign island nations because of changes in the United Nation Law of the Sea, which has significantly expanded their exclusive economic zones giving them greater control over harnessing natural resources, makes the islands region hot property for the world’s fast growing economies.

It is natural that in this scenario, the west does not want to miss out and it realises that its stand and ongoing policy on one of the region’s most significant players, Fiji, which is also the geographical and logistic gateway to the region, has gone nowhere, drifting rudderless in an increasingly alienating manner.

In attempting a serious comeback, the US has been careful to state that its renewed interest in Fiji and the Pacific immediately through its investment in reopening its Fiji office has more to do with development co-operation and to help climate change. Such benign and altruistic ideals are decidedly non-controversial and on the face of it acceptable in all quarters. Besides, they sit rather well with New Zealand’s much touted commitment to the environment.

And one last thing: the ultimate upshot of increased US involvement in the region in unison with seasoned regional allies New Zealand and Australia may yet be instrumental in hammering out some sort of solution to the Fiji situation over the medium term – a brokered deal acceptable to most players under the iron fist concealed in stars and stripes spangled velvet glove.

First appeared in Islands Business, December 2010