The U.S. State Department has informed Congress of its plan to enhance its engagement with Pacific islands by increasing the number of diplomatic personnel and allocating more funds for U.S. embassies in the region. A notice sent to Congress on Wednesday detailed Washington’s intention to hire 40 American and local staff for the new embassies in the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu, and Kiribati over the next five years, according to The Associated Press.
The State Department estimated that constructing and designing each of the embassies would require a minimum of $10 million, in addition to an annual cost of $3.3 million for maintenance and operating expenses. The department emphasized the need to bolster the United States’ presence in the region in response to China’s establishment of permanent diplomatic facilities in eight out of the twelve Pacific island nations recognized by the U.S.
In a statement, the department highlighted that the absence of a permanent U.S. diplomatic presence in more populated Pacific islands undermined U.S. efforts to engage as an indispensable partner and Pacific power, particularly during a time of heightened strategic competition. It asserted that addressing this challenge would necessitate investment in resources and creative solutions to attract and retain a cadre of Pacific experts. Furthermore, the United States needs to significantly increase its staffing resources to robustly engage with the Pacific islands and ensure an open, secure, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region.
The notice coincided with Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Indonesia for a Southeast Asian regional security forum. He also planned to undertake an extended Pacific trip at the end of July, reflecting the United States’ commitment to bolstering its engagement in the Pacific region. This increased focus comes in response to China’s security pact with the Solomon Islands last year, which raised concerns among many countries in the region that Beijing could potentially establish military presence on the strategically important island.
Admiral John Aquilino, U.S. Indo-Pacific commander, spoke at an event in Singapore, highlighting how the China-Solomon Islands security pact served as a wake-up call for the United States and other nations to engage with Pacific island nations. He emphasized that the United States was now back on track, engaging with these nations meaningfully and providing them with assistance and support.
The United States has already signed agreements with Papua New Guinea, Palau, and the Federated States of Micronesia following Blinken’s visit to these island nations in May. These agreements aim to consolidate bilateral relations between the U.S. and these Pacific island nations. However, the U.S. has yet to renew its military contract with the Marshall Islands, which could potentially impede the free movement of the United States in the region.
Indo-Pacific expert Cleo Paskal warned that the failure to secure a deal with the Marshall Islands could have significant implications, including the potential disruption of trade routes. She emphasized the importance of a free and open Indo-Pacific, stating that once China gains control over trade routes, it can control who Pacific nations can trade with, thus underscoring the need for the U.S. to maintain its presence and influence in the region.
Overall, the United States is taking steps to increase its diplomatic and development engagement with Pacific islands to counter China’s growing influence. By increasing personnel and funding, constructing new embassies, and signing agreements with Pacific island nations, the United States aims to reinforce its presence and secure its strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific region.