“Pacific Partnership brings host nations and partners together to prepare during calm periods to effectively respond in times of crisis, throughout the Indo-Pacific.” This one sentence summarizes not just an annual exercise in the region—it is also an appropriate mission statement for a new US–Taiwan Partnership with the Pacific.
When Pacific Leaders met in Suva, Fiji last month, regional and international media described this Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) Special Leaders Retreat as “a significant moment for Pacific unity.” The meeting was hailed as a key step in reuniting the Pacific family after one of its smallest members, Kiribati, pulled out of the PIF last year. In the official communique from the summit, the delegates expressed their support for intra-regional solidarity, affirming their commitment to achieving a “resilient Pacific Region of peace, harmony, security, social inclusion and prosperity.” Beyond these formal declarations, I hope that there were informal discussions and consensus that the “Blue Continent” is free and open—and that it views positively more partnership with like-minded partners, including Taiwan and the United States.
I am not the first person to call for an enhanced relationship between the United States and Taiwan and its partners in the region. The Global Taiwan Institute (GTI) and Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation (TAEF) have put forward detailed proposals for “building a US–Taiwan development assistance coordination mechanism and programs” in its recent joint report titled “Assessing Trends and Demand Signals for Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy.” This report builds on the 2021 policy brief from the same organizations, and seeks to better connect Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy (NSP, 新南向政策) with the new US Indo-Pacific Strategy.
With perspective gained as the former US Ambassador to the Republic of Palau, it is my view that the time has come to move forward and establish an enhanced and expanded partnership with Pacific Island countries. Successful cooperation in response to the COVID-19 global pandemic proved that such partnerships are both vitally needed and can greatly benefit all partners. This type of partnership could be a win-win-win for the United States, Taiwan, and the island states of the Pacific.
Image: US, Taiwan, and Palau participants at Pacific Partnership 21. (Image source: US Pacific Fleet)
In 2020, the United States announced a “Pacific Pledge” as part of its new Indo-Pacific Strategy, noting that the United States “considers the Pacific Islands to be important partners” and “greatly values our historic ties, strong economic links, and mutual cooperation.” In 2022, the Biden Administration issued its “Pacific Partnership Strategy,” the first ever US strategy focused on the region. In it, the administration called for “broader and deeper engagement with the Pacific Islands as a priority.” It noted that the new US strategy is also “aligned with the goals of the Pacific Islands Forum’s (PIF) 2050 strategy.” This partnership with the region was reaffirmed when President Biden hosted Pacific Island leaders in Washington last year, which concluded with a joint “Declaration on US–Pacific Partnership.”
In 2022, the PIF released its “2050 Strategy” for the “blue continent” that comprises the Pacific Islands. Building on the 2018 Boa Declaration on Regional Security—which recognized an expanded concept of security—the strategy identifies seven areas for future cooperation and increased engagement with partners, including: political leadership and regionalism; people centered development; peace and security; resource and economic development; climate change and disasters; ocean and natural environment; and technology and connectivity.
Graphic: The seven areas for increased cooperation, outlined in the Pacific Island Forum’s “2050 Strategy.” (Graphic source: Pacific Islands Forum)
As the 2050 report states, “securing the future of the Pacific cannot be left to chance, but requires a long-term vision, strategy and commitment.” PIF leaders have noted that this “will require a whole-of-region approach, the inclusion of key stakeholders in supporting and delivering on our shared priorities and engaging as the Blue Pacific Continent in strategically beneficial partnerships at the regional, multilateral and global level.” The PIF’s interest in key partnerships based on the seven priority areas of cooperation has helped inform US strategy for the Pacific Islands, as well as the strategies of other states.
Other Partnerships with the Pacific
A number of other partners of the Pacific states have issued new policy documents focused on lines of effort that support the PIF’s identified priorities. Indeed, in June 2022, the governments of Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States established a new coordination mechanism called “The Partners in the Blue Pacific” (PBP). This reflects the increased engagement by a number of nations, both in and outside the region, with the Pacific states.
In fact, this is not a new phenomenon. In 1997, Japan established the Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting (PALM) as a forum to be held every three years for ministerial-level talks with PIF members. This increased Japanese interest in the region was further confirmed by Tokyo’s “Free and Open Indo Pacific” (FOIP) strategy. In the document, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated that “Japan bears the responsibility of fostering the confluence of the Pacific and Indian Oceans and of Asia and Africa into a place that values freedom, the rule of law, and the market economy, free from force or coercion, and making it prosperous.”
The government of Australia in its 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper stated that a stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific is the most important Australian national interest. Australia’s “reprioritization” of the Pacific is now known as the “Pacific Step Up”—a formal commitment to further engage in the Pacific region. Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong in her visits in the region has repeatedly stated that “what is at the heart of this (step up) is a strong desire to play our part in the Pacific family and build stronger relationships.”
India’s “Indo-Pacific Ocean Initiative,” announced at the 2019 East Asia Summit, has sought to develop regional cooperation and participation among partners in the region. This initiative is consistent with India’s “Security and Growth for All in the Region” (SAGAR) policy. India has also supported an increased focus on the Pacific by the “Quad”—the informal quadrilateral strategic dialogue between the United States, Japan, Australia, and India. The May 2022 Quad Leaders Statement reaffirmed that the Quad is “committed to working together to address the needs of Pacific Islands partners” and “will further strengthen our cooperation with Pacific Island countries.”
Other multilateral organizations both in the region and outside of the Indo Pacific—such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as the European Union (EU)—have updated and refocused their policies regarding ties to, and support of, the Pacific. As the EU put it in its 2022 Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, “the EU aims to contribute to the region’s stability, prosperity and sustainable development, in line with the principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”
Time for a Deeper US–Taiwan Partnership with the Pacific Islands
The June 2022 report by the Global Taiwan Institute reviews how Taiwan can strengthen relations with its partners, actively participate in international organizations, and expand its regional and global economic ties. The perfect place to do so is in the Pacific, based on the comprehensive partnerships that the United States and Taiwan have developed in and with the region. Such a partnership would build on the cooperation between the two partners that already exists, with a specific focus on the key priority issues identified by Pacific Island countries and the PIF. Other like-minded nations also have a role to play to support these objectives in the increasingly contested Indo-Pacific.
Both the United States and Taiwan share historical ties and agree on fundamental principles with the Pacific Islands. That is the bedrock on which their partnership with the region is built. But just as no man is an island, the Pacific Islands faces real and growing threats to their wellbeing, and in some cases, very survival.
As the former US Ambassador to Palau, I have written recently in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs that the US relationship with this strategic nation (and the region) is on a stronger footing now than before. This is due to a series of recent initiatives by the United States and like-minded partners to strengthen this partnership. While I was in Koror, the US country team focused on what I called “the three big Cs”: China, climate, and capacity building. Our counterparts at the Embassy of Taiwan and other like-minded missions worked on the same set of issues. While the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its malign activities are a key focus in the region, Pacific Island leaders are also concerned about the impact of climate and the need for capacity building. For some, these two challenges may be even more of an immediate concern.
Palau provides a model for a successful, effective partnership in the Pacific Islands. The United States and Taiwan governments—in coordination with the government of Palau—support numerous programs that address the identified needs of Palau and the seven priority development areas identified by the PIF in its “2050 Strategy.” Palau’s other diplomatic partners, such as Australia, Japan, and India, also contribute to this partnership with Palau based on mutual, shared interests.
Depth and Breadth of US-Taiwan Partnership with Palau: A Model for the Region
The Department of State’s fact sheet on US relations with Palau provides significant detail regarding the depth and breadth of US support. To summarize: “the United States and Palau cooperate on a broad range of issues, including strengthening regional security, promoting sustainable development and tackling the climate crisis, remediating unexploded ordnance (UXO), and protecting fisheries and the environment.” This is a whole-of-government effort, which includes elements of both hard and soft power. This partnership is highly effective, as it targets issues that matter to the United States, its allies, and Palau.
Since it established formal relations with Palau in 1999, Taiwan has instituted a similarly large (on a per capita basis) development assistance program with the island nation. According to media reports, Taiwan provides over USD $10 million annually in direct assistance to Palau. In every state and in nearly every hamlet, there are signs listing the projects and contracts funded by Taiwan. The local papers regularly have a photo of Taiwan’s ambassador presenting a check to the government or local organization in support of a specific programs. But the support from Taiwan is about more than just money. The very visible signs of Taiwan’s partnership with Palau underpin a relationship that is based on shared principals and agreement on key challenges in the islands, particularly in regards to the three big Cs previously mentioned: China, climate, and capacity building.
The successful partnership that the United States and Taiwan have with Palau has become a model for the region. This was clearly exhibited by their response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. In a demonstration of the bipartisan agreement that exists in the US Congress regarding the importance of US ties to the Pacific, Washington treated Palau and the other two Compact States in exactly the same manner as the 50 United States and its territories for the purposes of COVID-19 prevention. The US rapidly mobilized funding and sent equipment and personnel to assist Palau and other Pacific Island nations as part of a coordinated international response. Palau in fact was the first nation in the world to completely vaccinate its population, which helped mitigate the impact of the pandemic.
In terms of “soft power,” there is no better example of how US partnership has supported governments and benefited the people of the region. This was a highly effective and well-coordinated interagency response that made a measurable difference. Taiwan also responded urgently, and the very first shipment of emergency assistance to arrive in Palau came from Taiwan onboard a Taiwanese fishing vessel. This delivery was quickly followed by the deployment of medical teams from Taipei, who worked alongside doctors and nurses from the United States. Taiwan also provided important budgetary support to help Palau manage and prepare for a resumption of travel and tourism once the pandemic eased. I was honored to participate in the visit by President Whipps of Palau to Taiwan in March 2021, which focused on these issues and this partnership.
Photo: Palauan President Surangel Whipps Jr. (center) meets with Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (left) and former US Ambassador to Palau John Hennessey-Niland (right). (Photo source: United Press International)
A Pragmatic—Not Political—Partnership: The United States, Taiwan, and the Pacific Islands
As a former diplomat in the region, I am fully aware of the sensitivities regarding Taiwan’s status. It is more productive in my view—and more urgent than ever—to focus on pragmatic approaches to shared challenges, as clearly demonstrated by the response from partners in the Pacific to the global pandemic. Taiwan can and does play a key role in the region. It is part of the region, much like the United States. While there are certainly significant challenges, there are also opportunities to do more to expand the partnership with the Pacific Islands in areas of shared interest and concern.
The US Pacific Partnership Strategy notes that “as we enter the most consequential period in the history of our partnership […] it is time to recommit ourselves to working together in genuine partnership to address the mounting challenges of our time.” I suggest we consider in the traditional “Pacific Way” that a talanoa (dialogue) be organized to discuss ways the United States, Taiwan, and other like-minded governments can work together to deepen and expand partnership with the Pacific Island states.
The main point: In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, cooperation between the United States, Taiwan, and the Pacific Islands is at an all-time high. Washington and Taipei should work to maintain and expand their partnerships with the region to confront shared challenges.