Pacific Island countries not US’ geopolitical pawns

The United States has been paying greater attention to the Pacific Island nations as part of the strategy to counter China's rising influence in the region.

Among the moves to deepen its relations with the countries in the region are a defense pact with Papua New Guinea, which was signed on Monday. This gives US troops access to the Pacific nation's ports and airports. It has also signed new strategic pacts with Palau and Micronesia, and plans to sign a similar one with the Marshall Islands in the coming weeks.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to hold separate talks with the 14 Pacific Island countries' leaders who have gathered in the Papua New Guinea capital, Port Moresby, for a summit.

China, which has in recent years deepened its exchanges and cooperation with the Pacific Island nations in such areas as public services, education and the fishing industry, has made it clear that it is not interested in engaging in a geopolitical contest with the US in the Pacific Islands' region, or elsewhere.

Thus it is worrying to see the US continuously pushing ahead with the efforts to counter what it sees as a challenge from China's cooperative relations with countries in the region, which bodes ill for peace and stability in the region and beyond.

The plan to open a new geopolitical front against China among Pacific Island nations comes after the US announced the Pacific Partnership Strategy in September 2022, in which it underscored what it claims is "pressure and economic coercion" from China that "risks undermining the peace, prosperity, and security of the region".

Yet despite the latest deals, whether the Pacific Island nations will join the US-orchestrated anti-China chorus is doubtful, mainly because nearly all of the countries see climate change, not China, as the major threat.

The nature of the US' charm offensive among the island nations — which is to contain China's influence rather than address their development needs — determines its Pacific strategy will not go very far, especially given the Pacific Island leaders do not want to be forced to choose sides between China and the US. For example, Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape has denied the signing of the deal with the US would stop his country from working with China, an important trade partner.

The US should contribute more to the development of the Pacific Island nations, rather than trying to cajole them to get on its anti-China chariot.