In the U.S. National Defense Strategy published in January 2018, Washington announced the return of great power competition, branded China a “strategic competitor,” and called for a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Despite these rhetorical developments, however, there remain lingering questions surrounding the Trump administration’s episodic engagement with the region, its failure to coordinate with allies on major issues, and inadequate resourcing for initiatives outside the military realm.
These concerns will be on the mind of many of the national leaders gathering in Singapore for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asia summits, and then in Papua New Guinea for the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum (APEC), this week. Conspicuously absent from the gatherings is U.S. President Donald Trump, who has chosen instead to send Vice President Mike Pence. In contrast, Chinese President Xi Jinping is hosting a meeting with the leaders of the Pacific island states in Papua New Guinea ahead of the APEC meeting.
Despite Trump’s absence, however, the United States and key regional allies are finally sharpening their focus on strategic competition with China for influence in the South Pacific. Across the island states of the South Pacific, Washington is working closely with Canberra, Tokyo, and Wellington and expending significant resources. Absent further coordination and resource commitment, however, the initial efforts of this emerging strategy are unlikely to help the region or offset the more troubling aspects of Beijing’s growing presence.
A STRATEGICALLY VITAL REGION
The island states of the South Pacific occupy only a small amount of territory in a vast ocean, and yet they are strategically vital to the United States and its regional allies—particularly Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. All of these countries have an interest in ensuring that commercial and military access across the Pacific remains free and unimpeded; denying a potentially hostile power the ability to project power against them; and expanding democratic institutions and liberal norms.
Over the past several years, Beijing has stepped up its activity across the Pacific, increasing
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