At Ground level | US reasserts presence in Pacific island nations

Now playing out in a hitherto-neglected region of the world – but not that far from our own beleaguered corner – is the escalating tension between the United States and China.

Realizing that its upcoming geopolitical rival, China, has increased its presence and influence in the tiny island countries of the south Pacific Ocean, America is now scurrying to strengthen its diplomatic relations with them.

History buffs will remember that the Pacific islands played significant roles for US intelligence and combat operations against Japan during World War II. Since then, however, economic development has mostly lagged behind – which makes for the “benevolent generosity” of richer nations to be potentially appreciated.

Having sealed the addition of four “US facilities” to the existing five inside Philippine military bases under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), America is now turning its attention to the far-flung region.

Last Tuesday, the US signed a defense and maritime cooperation agreement – akin to the EDCA – with Papua New Guinea (PNG), which gained independence in 1975. It was the site of fierce battles during WW II. PNG’s location just north of Australia, a strong US military ally, makes it strategically significant.

Fearing that PNG would be embroiled in the heightening hostility between the US and China, civil society groups and university students have called for protest actions against the new agreement.

The PNG political opposition leader Joseph Lelang had earlier warned: “We have a foreign policy of ‘friends to all and enemies to none’ (a similar pronouncement made by Marcos Jr. earlier). We…should not be blinded by the dollar signs or be coerced into signing deals that may be detrimental to us in the long run.”

James Marape, the prime minister, argued that the new agreement was the culmination of “many years and months” of talks with US officials: “It wasn’t shoved down our throats.” He explained that PNG needs to have its defense forces “assisted, supported, stepped up.” Moreover, he said, it wasn’t a treaty-level document that binds PNG to mutual defense obligations.

(Note that these are the same assurances, given by both the US and the Marcos Jr. administration, that the additional four EDCA sites would “enhance” the country’s security as well as economic activities and employment in the “agreed locations” of the US facilities.)

Before the accord’s signing, Prime Minister Marape had defended it against claims that it could encroach on the country’s sovereignty. But a leaked draft of the agreement showed that it grants US personnel and contractors legal immunity and allows US aircraft, vehicles and vessels operated by or on behalf of the US to move freely within PNG territory and territorial waters. It also exempts US staff from all immigration requirements.

PNG wouldn’t become a base for launching war, Marape tried to assure critics. There’s a specific clause in the accord – whose text hasn’t been made available yet – that says the “partnership is not a partnership for PNG to be used as a place for launching offensive military operations,” he pointed out. (In the case of the two new EDCA sites in Cagayan and Isabela, Marcos Jr. has also declared these would not be used for launching offensive military operations targeted again Taiwan, a probability that certain observers suggested.)

Besides the PNG, the US was set to renew their strategic pacts, signed in the 1980s, with Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau. Under those accords, which will expire soon, America assumed responsibility for their defense and for broader economic aid, while gaining “exclusive access” to huge strategic areas of the Pacific islands.

The US has already signed memoranda of understanding (MOUs) on future aid to the three countries, totaling $6.5 billion over 20 years.

Reflecting the other Pacific island leaders’ views, Marape took pains to assert that their nations should not be simply seen as “chess pieces in a broader geopolitical struggle” between China and the US. Their nations’ priorities, he stressed, lie in their development needs and actions on the climate crisis, which threatens to sink their territories into the sea.

At a time of high tension, Marape lamented, the PNG economically is the weakest nation in the region. He expressed hope that the US-PNG accord would encourage more foreign investments to come in and exploit its largely undeveloped rich natural resources.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who signed the agreement with the PNG defense chief, said it would provide $45 million to help improve the two countries’ security cooperation and strengthen the PNG armed forces. For sweeteners, the accord would also help mitigate the effects of climate change on PNG, tackle transnational crimes and improve public health.

“We are proud to partner with PNG, driving economic opportunities, and we are committed to all aspects of defense and maritime cooperation,” said Blinken. The agreement, he added, would allow “bilateral and multilateral exercises and engagements in support of regional capacity-building priorities” and enable the US to be more responsive in emergency situations as those involving humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

However, the head of the US Studies Center at the University of Sydney (Australia), Michael Green, a former top US official, noted: “The Pacific [islands] does not want to be a source of competition between the US and its allies against China – but it is.”

The US-PNG deal, he pointed out, could be “a win for the US for now.” Saying it would be wrong for US policymakers to be complacent, he warned: “[The situation] can swing back at any moment, and we may wake up with headlines saying China has a security deal with one of the countries of the Pacific islands.”

Published in Philippine Star
May 27, 2023

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