Partners in the Blue Pacific
A new initiative to contain China
After more than a year and a half into his presidency, Joe Biden’s approach to Asia is coming into focus. The Biden administration has engaged in a series of diplomatic initiatives with allies and partners across the Indo-Pacific region over the course of the last few months. After the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, it has now roped in Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the United Kingdom to create a five-nation alliance “Partners in the Blue Pacific (PBP)” for “effective and efficient cooperation” with the region’s small island nations. The group will seek to support Pacific regionalism and strengthen economic ties between the Pacific islands and the rest of the world.
On June 24, “an inclusive, informal mechanism to support Pacific priorities more effectively and efficiently,’ was launched by five countries, headed by the United States. This five-nation “informal mechanism” is aimed to support Pacific islands and boost diplomatic, economic ties in the region. In a joint statement, the five countries said PBP was an “inclusive, informal mechanism” to support Pacific priorities, in line with the principles of “Pacific regionalism, sovereignty, transparency, accountability, and most of all, led and guided by the Pacific Islands.”
The initiative members have also declared that they will “elevate Pacific regionalism,” and forge stronger ties with the Pacific Islands Forum.
After the China-Solomon Islands security deal came to the fore, the Biden administration in the United States is out to commit more resources to the Indo-Pacific region just to stop China from boosting its economic and military ties with the countries in the region. China’s growing influence here can be seen in the fact that in recent months, China has stepped up its engagement with Pacific Island states. In June, Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, also undertook an eight-country tour in the region and hosted a China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers Meeting in Fiji. By the time he ended his tour, the deal ran aground amid warnings of the Pacific states becoming part of “Beijing’s orbit”.
China’s growing influence is increasingly rattling the Biden administration. To contain it, the Biden administration is out to engage with countries in this part of the world. Following its strategy for a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” which pledges support for regional connectivity, trade and investment, and deepening bilateral and multilateral partnerships, the Biden administration sees the region as a new center of gravity of the international system and is reorienting US foreign policy accordingly. That’s why it is taking steps to modernize its old, long-standing alliances, strengthen emerging partnerships and invest in regional organizations. For instance, with an aim to militarily limit China in the Indo-Pacific, it has fomented regional alliances including the trilateral security pact AUKUS (Australia, the UK, and the US) that would help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines and military capability enhancements from the United States, QUAD (US, India, Australia and Japan) purposed to hedge China’s influence in the region as evident from frequent joint naval curriculum being exercised for two years.
The US and its allies said they would together, as well as individually, focus on three priority areas.
1. Delivering results
The first will be delivering results for the Pacific more effectively and efficiently. “We will map existing projects and plan future ones, seeking to drive resources, remove duplication and close gaps, which will avoid greater burdens and lost opportunities for Pacific governments and Pacific people.”
The second area of focus is bolstering “Pacific regionalism”. “The PBP will forge closer connections with Pacific governments and with the Pacific Islands Forum, by facilitating stronger and more regular engagement with our governments. We will further elevate Pacific regionalism, with a strong and united Pacific Islands Forum at its center,” the statement said.
3. Expanding Cooperation
The final area of focus will be expanding cooperation between the Pacific and the rest of the world. “PBP,” the five countries said, “will encourage and facilitate greater engagement with the Pacific by any other partner that shares the Pacific’s values and aims to work constructively and transparently to benefit the people of the region”.
The group said that the mechanism will remain inclusive, informal and open to cooperating with additional partners, but emphasised that it will be led and guided by the Pacific Island states.
The China connection
Although the White House asserts this new initiative builds on commitment to the region, the Voice of America has said that its purpose is to balance China’s “growing influence.” The initiative calls for further cooperation to improve “prosperity, resilience and security” in the Pacific which simply means that these nations will contribute more resources through the PBP, both collectively and individually, to block China’s aggressive outreach.
In the words of Andrew Korybko, “Their joint statement indicates that it’ll concentrate chiefly on the Pacific Islands region and allegedly focus on comprehensively expanding their cooperation with a view towards supporting regionalism. In reality, however, the PBP is really just an unofficial expansion of last September’s AUKUS anti-China alliance with Australia, the UK, and the US.”
An empty shell?
The problems of the PBP initiative are just as obvious as in the Indo-Pacific strategy. The absence of concrete plans to promote economic cooperation and the lack of capacity to provide economic investment to regional countries make it appear more like lip service. The calculation of the initiative apparently exploits the economic and diplomatic influence of its allies like Australia among the Pacific Island nations to prolong its sole domination of global politics.
The US claimed the PBP initiative will promote economic cooperation but its rhetoric cannot fool anyone. Indeed, the Pacific Island countries can benefit from a more integrated regional economy that fosters trade and new private investments with a climate-resilient and sustainable infrastructure capacity. But the economic predicament of the US and its allies does not allow them to provide real support to the development of Pacific island countries.
The US share of global manufacturing activity has declined considerably over the past several decades. The hollowing out of its manufacturing sector and the major risks of surging inflation and potential recession leave little hope for the US to increase investment in Pacific Island countries. In addition, with the ongoing protectionism in the US, the Biden administration is unlikely to make a commitment to facilitate and promote trade with regional countries.
If the US and its allies are serious about helping Pacific island nations boost their economic growth, improving infrastructure would be an appropriate step, as regional countries are endowed with limited infrastructure connectivity that deters private investment. However, it has been one year since the Group of Seven announced its grand infrastructure plan, known as the Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative, and the US and its allies have yet to make real progress, let alone aid to other countries.
A report by the US think tank Center for Strategic & International Studies published recently advised the Biden administration to assess how the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) can be developed to provide economic partnership opportunities for the Pacific island nations. However, the IPEF seems more like just an empty shell as the US cannot offer anything concrete. The PBP, which lacks the connotation of economic cooperation, may only become another empty shell after the IPEF.
The US’ new initiative comes as China strengthens economic cooperation with Pacific Island countries without any political strings attached. If the US does not respect the sovereignty of regional economies and approaches them as pawns in a chess board to counter China in a geopolitical game, its efforts are doomed to be counterproductive. The Cold War mentality can neither help the economic development of Pacific island countries nor can it promote economic cooperation.
How does China see the PBP?
The brand new PBP reflects US hysteria over China’s regional diplomacy and economic relations in the Pacific, particularly with regard to Pacific Islands. The PBP is intended as a geopolitical move against China’s regional engagement featuring a policy of peace and development. While the US conducts its proxy war against Russia using Ukraine, Washington is preparing for a new Pacific war over Taiwan. The gathering storm in the Pacific is concerning to many.
It would be mutually beneficial for all the countries involved if PBP remains a purely economic platform that doesn’t try to aggressively squeeze Chinese companies out of the region but instead concentrates exclusively on improving the living standards of the people inhabiting the Pacific Islands states. That, however, is a wishful fantasy since nothing that the US leads is ever truly devoted to the universal good of mankind. So, it should be seen as a strategic cooperation platform first and foremost that is disguising its real intent with unconvincing rhetoric about mutually beneficial cooperation. Its real purpose is to comprehensively expand Japan and New Zealand’s full-spectrum coordination with AUKUS, beginning in the economic and humanitarian dimensions but then inevitably evolving into military and political ones in a doomed-to-fail attempt to maximally “contain” China in the Asia-Pacific.
The writer is a member of staff.