The U.S. State Department has notified Congress of its plan to ramp up engagement with Pacific islands, including increasing the number of diplomatic personnel and spending for U.S. embassies in the region.
Washington aims 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 a notice sent to Congress on Wednesday, The Associated Press reported.
The department estimated that it would require at least $10 million to construct and design each of the embassies, as well as an additional $3.3 million per year for their maintenance and operating expenses.
It urged the United States to boost its presence in the region to counter China, which has established permanent diplomatic facilities in eight of the 12 Pacific island nations recognized by the United States.
“The lack of a permanent U.S. diplomatic presence in more heavily populated [Pacific islands] undermines U.S. efforts to engage as an indispensable partner and Pacific power during a time of heightened strategic competition,” the department stated.
“To address this challenge, the United States has moved to dramatically increase its diplomatic and development engagement with the region,” it added.
The department said that recruiting for new and existing positions will be difficult without offering a compensation package that matches the unique demands of the locations, citing the extreme weather phenomena, poor telecommunication systems, and inadequate medical and schooling facilities in the Pacific nations.
“Rectifying this situation would require an investment in resources and creative solutions to attract and retain a cadre of Pacific experts,” it stated. “The United States needs to significantly increase staffing resources if it plans to robustly engage in the Pacific islands to preserve an open, secure, and prosperous Indo-Pacific.”
The notice came as Secretary of State Antony Blinken was visiting Indonesia for a Southeast Asian regional security forum and planned an extended Pacific trip at the end of July.
The United States has sought to boost its engagement in the Pacific region after Beijing signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands last year, which many countries in the region fear could allow Beijing to station troops, weapons, and naval ships on the strategically important island.
Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare (R) and China’s Premier Li Qiang inspect the guard of honor during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on July 10, 2023. (Andy Wong/AFP via Getty Images)
Admiral John Aquilino, U.S. Indo-Pacific commander, spoke in March at an event hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore.
Adm. Aquilino said the Solomon Islands–China security pact has served as a wake-up call for the United States and other nations to engage with Pacific island nations, Radio Free Asia reported.
“I think it woke a number of us up to ensure we spend more time, engage with, provide assistance and support to Pacific islands,” he said. “We’re back on track, I would say, and we continue to engage in ways that are meaningful and helpful for those nations.”
The United States has signed agreements with Papua New Guinea, Palau, and the Federated States of Micronesia following Blinken’s visit to the island nations in May to solidify their bilateral relations.
But the country has yet to renew its military contract with the Marshall Islands, which an analyst warned could block the free movement of the United States in the region.
“There’s the potential for a real shift in the ability to rely on the Compact of Free Association to ensure U.S. freedom of movement across the region, which is what actually underpins a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Indo-Pacific expert Cleo Paskal said in an interview for “China in Focus” on NTD, the sister media outlet of The Epoch Times.
Ms. Paskal is an associate fellow of the Asia-Pacific program at Chatham House, also known as the Royal Institute of International Affairs, in London.
Under the Compact of Free Association established in the 1980s, the United States is obligated to provide economic aid to the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands in exchange for permission to operate defense bases there.
These three Pacific nations are referred to as the Freely Associated States.
Ms. Paskal said the failure to secure a deal with the Marshall islands could also impede trade routes in the region.
“Once China has control over the trade routes … you can’t get your goods in and out, they control who you can trade with,” she said. “There’s a reason why a free and open Indo-Pacific is important.”
Hannah Ng and Tiffany Meier contributed to this report.