Pacific leaders will be welcomed back to Washington D.C. for the second summit with the United States on September 25. This year there is a slight, but significant, renaming of this event from the inaugural U.S.-Pacific Islands Country Summit in 2022. It is now named the U.S.-Pacific Islands Forum Summit, an indication of how the U.S. is coalescing its greatly upscaled efforts in the Pacific around the peak regional body based in Suva, Fiji. With 18 nations and territories as members of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), it is expected that this year there will be high-level representation from all the island member-states, excluding PIF members Australia and New Zealand, who will observe summit proceedings again this year.
Last year, due to complications around the five Micronesian nations who almost left the PIF in 2022, there were some notable absences from the summit in Washington. President Taneti Maamau of Kiribati was one of them. Thanks to some deft Pacific diplomacy in January 2023 by Fiji’s newly elected prime minister, Sitiveni Rabuka, Kiribati was brought back into the regional fold. It is hoped that Maamau will join his Pacific counterparts in Washington next week.
Also missing last year was David Kabua, president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), as his nation had advanced processes to withdraw from the forum that have since been reversed. Kabua will come to Washington at a critical time in his country’s renegotiation of their Compact of Free Association (COFA) with the United States – the current agreement expires on September 30, 2023. The other two freely associated states, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau, have signed renewed agreements that will span the next 20 years.
Ambassador Joseph Yun, who leads the U.S. COFA negotiations, said in an interview that progress is now being made after talks went awry mid-2023. No doubt one of the summit’s ambitions will be to reach an agreement with the RMI, which Kabua’s presence in Washington should advance. Still, the expiration deadline looms, and U.S. congressional budget wrangling further complicates the passage of this legislation. Yun said that “contingencies” are being put into place to ensure the continuation of financing and vital services embedded in the COFA agreements. Despite all the challenges that have impacted negotiations, Yun is “quite confident that by the end of the year, we will see the enactment of new compacts for all three countries.” Much effort will no doubt be put toward making this happen at the Washington summit.
It would be no surprise if the leader who stood on U.S. President Joe Biden’s left in last year’s official photo did not appear in Washington this year. Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare made his presence felt at the summit last year by at first refusing to sign the U.S. Pacific Partnership Strategy. In the year since, relations between Sogavare’s government and the United States have deteriorated significantly.
U.S. Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy expressed her government’s dismay with Sogavare when she returned to Solomon Islands in August 2023 to commemorate 80 years since her father’s lifesaving rescue by Eroni Kumana and Biuku Gasa during World War II and his extraordinary feats that followed. Despite the U.S. standing ready to provide millions of dollars in aid to the nation, their efforts were being blocked, Kennedy said, which marks the latest episode in a series of such interactions over the past months. A no-show by Sogavare in Washington would be consistent with this pattern and a resounding win for China, but not for his constituents.
The upcoming summit represents the crowning event of Washington’s explosive re-engagement with the Pacific Islands, which dates from early 2022, and was admittedly spurred by Solomon Islands’ security deal with China revealed in March 2022. Many people in Washington are now working on Pacific issues who were not engaged with the region even two years ago.
Yun’s appointment as the presidential envoy to renegotiate the COFA agreements also dates from this time, so he’s watched the upscaled engagement at close range and been a central figure in it as well. Yun said that the United States’ “variety of engagement” in the Pacific since March 2022 and “the whole of government approach led by the White House” is at a level he has not seen over the past two decades. The range of U.S. engagements include assistance for ocean health, new embassies in Tonga and Solomon Islands, the return of the Peace Corps, and targeted initiatives to boost the economic health of island nations that are still suffering from the shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many Pacific Islanders are getting medical treatment thanks to visits by the Mercy hospital ship and the brightest minds in the Pacific have expanded opportunities, though still modest in scale, to study in the U.S. thanks to new funding opportunities.
With this will, motivation, and purpose, the United States would do well to look to another pillar of Pacific regionalism to apply their efforts: the University of the South Pacific (USP) headquartered in Suva, Fiji. With campuses in 12 nations, which together co-own the institution, the USP has a unique position and ability to reach and shape the Pacific now and in future generations. It is also under-resourced and deeply impacted by pandemic economic shocks as the global higher education sector experienced.
The USP has “imminent” needs for buildings, materials, technology, and ready access to the global information flows and expertise that are the mainstay of the knowledge economy. Only with these resources in place can it provide the most cost-effective and impactful education and training for Pacific populations, who are seeking these vital opportunities in numbers that outstrip the USP’s current capacity. The kinds of investment the USP needs are expensive. U.S. engagement here would be invaluable and would augment the modest yet vital assistance given by Australia and New Zealand. The USP noted in 2022 that it would also pursue support from the European Union.
This is where a U.S. sector that reigns as the world’s uncontested superpower comes in: U.S. universities. Given his connection to the Pacific, John F. Kennedy’s alma mater, Harvard University, would be an obvious choice to lead an initiative to assist the USP. The disparities between Harvard’s cash flows (2022 revenues of $5.8 billion and an endowment of $2.1 billion) and those of the USP, which serves 12 countries (2022 income of FJ$158 million or US$69 million) are stark. There are huge opportunities for Harvard (and other U.S. institutions) to share their vast economic, reputational, and knowledge power with the Pacific. Not only would this meet all the objectives of the United States’ upscaled Pacific engagement, it would also permit greater flows of rich Pacific knowledge into Cambridge Massachusetts, and beyond.
Such an initiative could memorialize John F. Kennedy and the thousands of American men who fought in the Pacific 80 years ago, as well as Eroni Kumana and Biuku Gasa, the Solomon Islanders who saved Kennedy’s life in August 1943. Kumana and Gasa would never have dreamed of a university education; the same is likely true for many of their descendants. It’s high time to address that lack of access.
Washington’s second Pacific Summit next week will take further steps to secure the future for the Pacific Islands where economics and climate change present existential challenges. Hopefully moves will also be made to ensure that a world-class education in the islands and a good job after graduation is not only imaginable but attainable for the Pacific’s best and brightest.