Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 06:34 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 06:34 | SYDNEY

The US: Back in the Pacific


Jenny Hayward-Jones


2 November 2010 13:52

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be visiting Papua New Guinea tomorrow, as part of her seven country tour of the Asia-Pacific. 

Her visit is timely. It comes soon after Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell's testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and the Global Environment signaled an enhanced US interest in the Pacific Islands region, and will send a clear message that the US is serious about the region.

Campbell's 29 September testimony, which acknowledged that the 'Pacific' component of 'Asia-Pacific' is often overlooked, was a comprehensive explanation of why the US has interests in the Pacific Islands, beyond its active presence in the northern Pacific. He also penned an article for Islands Business describing the US as 'stepping up' its game in the Pacific. But the US has made noises about being committed to the Pacific before; the Bush Administration declared 2007 the 'Year of the Pacific'. So what is new now and what does it mean for Australia'

With the possible exception of a slight opening to more engagement with Fiji, there is in fact not much that is startlingly new in Campbell's address. It's just a much clearer explanation of US policy in the Pacific than we've seen before from Washington – and an acknowledgment that the US commitment to the region could have been demonstrated better in the past.

What is new is the context in which the 'enhanced engagement' is taking place – the growing presence of other external players in the region. For the first time since the Cold War, the Pacific is becoming a playground for potentially competing interests. China, India, Russia, Taiwan and the UAE are just some of the foreign powers are stepping up their own games in a region traditionally dominated by Australia and New Zealand and ignored by the rest of the world. 

The European Union and Japan have also been at pains this year to emphasise the strength of their relationships with Pacific Island countries. 

Kurt Campbell's reference to the 'common interest' the US shares with China and Russia in the 'development and welfare' of the Pacific Islands is reminiscent of Australia's commitment to 'coordination' with China in the Pacific. Pacific Island countries may have to thank China for stimulating much greater global interest in their fate. 

Australian policy-makers regard the Pacific as Australia's backyard, and while they are proficient at policy coordination with like-minded New Zealand, they will be sensitive about sharing their supremacy in the region with the surfeit of new players – even if one of them is really an old player and Australia's closest ally.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.