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Asean Affairs    3 June 2012

Institutionalizing U.S. Engagement in the Pacific

By Ernest Z. Bower

The United States is refocusing on the Asia-Pacific region to promote its national interests. Strategically, this policy must encompass the whole region, including the 16 countries that are members of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), U.S. territories, and associated states.

The Pacific is an important part of a sustainable U.S. strategy in the region. This grouping of countries and territories has a population of approximately 35 million and a collective gross domestic product of more than $1.1 trillion. It is a region whose people are an integral part of societies in the United States and in countries like Australia and New Zealand. The countries are exposed to transnational threats such as the impact of climate change, natural disasters, and the need to manage energy, food security, and non-communicable disease.

The region is important from a security perspective. As World War II proved, the countries that occupy strategic locations in the Pacific Ocean are critical to the security of the United States. The health and welfare of Pacific Islanders therefore matters to the United States.

For the United States to effectively engage this widely dispersed region, trade is also important. Anchored by the larger economies of Australia and New Zealand, the region is a key source of natural resources and agricultural commodities. Both Australia and New Zealand are parties to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade negotiations, but there is no real plan for bringing most of the Pacific countries into regional economic integration plans. That is an oversight that should be addressed in the short term. What many of the Pacific countries need most is good governance and a pathway to integrate with the global economy. Starting with integration within the Asia-Pacific region is an important first step.

This is a critical moment for the Pacific economies to leap ahead. The Pacific Island Forum is an important institution. It is through the PIF that the Pacific and the countries in the region will gain the critical policy mass to play a significant role in the discussion about Asia-Pacific security, trade, and the developing regional architecture that links the region together. There is a real risk that leaving the PIF out of such discussions could expose PIF member countries to the mercantile instincts of nations seeking proprietary advantages or, even worse, to neglect.

The United States has a clear interest in working with visionary members of the PIF like Australia and New Zealand. New Zealand’s foreign minister Murray McCully visited Washington recently and called for more proactive U.S. engagement in the Pacific. New Zealand’s investment in the Pacific Islands is impressive and deserves thorough consideration by U.S. policymakers.

Australian foreign minister Bob Carr also spent considerable effort during his visit to Washington in April urging the United States to focus on key issues such as climate change, the upcoming United Nation’s Rio+20 sustainable development conference, health care, and renewable energy in the Pacific.

While New Zealand and Australia are doing their part, the PIF could do more to help institutionalize U.S. engagement in the region. Steps could be taken efficiently, without incurring undue costs or requiring significant additional investment. Some key steps should include the following:

1. Create a Pacific Islands Forum Committee (PIFC). This group would consist of the PIF ambassadors or senior diplomats to the United States as well as representatives from observer countries. The PIFC could meet quarterly and discuss policy issues with key U.S. interlocutors including top administration officials, members of Congress, and leaders in the private sector. Topics for discussion could include education, infrastructure, health care, trade, maritime security and domain awareness, and food and water security.

2. Leverage policy organizations. The PIFC should leverage policy and business organizations that are willing to devote resources and focus on their countries. This includes a common commitment to have leaders, ministers, and other influential policy persons address these groups when they visit the United States to discuss not only national issues, but also Pacific regional trends and concerns. The PIFC should support the development of a U.S.-PIF Business Council, or encourage the United States-New Zealand Council and/or the Australian American Leadership Dialogue to include a Pacific focus in their charters.

3. Engage in regional architecture. The PIF should discuss ways to link to newly developing regional security and trade architecture including the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus, Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, and the TPP trade negotiations. The PIF should request observer status in such organizations and ask to engage in an exchange of ideas with each of these groups to enhance the focus on Pacific affairs and establish an institutional linkage that can be developed into a pathway to membership in the future.

4. Collaborate in developing information and sharing data. A major impediment to more serious and sustained policy focus on the Pacific is the dearth of easily accessible information on the region’s economies, opportunities, and policy challenges. The information could be disseminated in the United States through the PIFC and partners such as business councils, policy organizations, the U.S. government, and the media.

5. Support a congressional caucus. The PIF should encourage and support the development of an active congressional caucus focusing on U.S. interests in the Pacific, organize regular briefings on key issues, and seek support for regular congressional trips to the region by members and staff.
These are basic recommendations to help the United States deepen its new focus on Asia in the context of rebalancing its resources toward the Asia Pacific. If the PIF does not act now, an important window may be closed.

(This Commentary first appeared in the May 31, 2012, issue of Pacific Partners Outlook,

Ernest Z. Bower is senior adviser, director of the Southeast Asia Program, and codirector of the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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