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Scorned by the USA

The Village Explainer
Scorned by the USA
By Dan McGarry • Issue #39 • View online
The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.

This is a quick note, driven by the announcement today that The President of the Marshall Islands will be the only Pacific island representative at a 40-nation summit on climate change in Washington next month.
When the PIF spectacularly drowned itself in rancour following the failure to adhere to a ‘gentleman’s agreement to elect a Micronesian as Secretary General, I wrote—and subsequently spiked—an analysis of the self-destructive vote for the Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General, which resulted in the Micronesian contingent deciding to withdraw from the group. I binned it because of deficiencies in the analysis, unrelated to the point I want to make today.
Which is this:
The failure to include either the Pacific Islands Forum or Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama in this summit may be seen as an affront by some, but it comes as no surprise to me.
Back then, I wrote:
[The divisive PIF vote placed] the United States in an awkward position. Their massive military bases in the north mean they must back Micronesia at all costs, even if it means doing so separately from the Forum.
Last year’s declassified US defence strategy paper on China and the Pacific makes it clear there’s a gap between the more alarmist views coming out of Canberra and the American assessment. This was already evident when Defence Secretary James Mattis sent a succession of top-level officials on tours of Melanesia and Micronesia. He clearly wanted his own eyes on the scene.
The trend continued after Mattis’ angry departure from the Trump administration, with White House officials quietly touring the islands.
It remains to be seen whether the creation of an extraordinarily large Indo-Pacific contingent within Biden’s NSC marks a continuation of this show-me mentality.
But it’s hard to imagine American analysts looking favourably on this shambolic turn of events. If they feel that Micronesian nations have been cut out of the herd, they may decide they’re better off in a separate group, sheltered under the American wing.
The odds of Joe Biden accepting Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama’s invitation to attend the Forum in August have diminished markedly. They were low to begin with.
Unless Forum members muster more acumen, dexterity and flexibility than they’ve shown so far, it’s hard to see the USA increasing its presence there, especially if doing so means spiting their Micronesian allies.
And today, we see this dynamic made manifest, with Joe Biden inviting heads of government from Australia, New Zealand and Micronesian, but not a single other Forum member.
In fairness, Mr Bainimarama may have his hands full with domestic concerns. And Henry Puna’s office is very much in transition at the moment.
But this is a huge opportunity lost. And my guess is that it’s a direct result of the recent schism.
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Dan McGarry

The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.

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Dan McGarry - Port Vila, Vanuatu