The Foreign Service Journal, November 2006

This latter category of small, Pacific island nations in what is gen- erally referred to as Oceania — in particular, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, the Cook Islands, Niue, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau — are uniquely relevant to Pacific security issues. These forgot- ten places are characterized by limit- ed natural and human resources, lack of infrastructure and geographical isolation, making their political, eco- nomic and military significance seem minimal. But these characteristics also make them vulnerable to terrorist activity and great-power influence. Although they are frequently overlooked diplomatical- ly in the international system, these island-states are important for the security of the United States. For exam- ple, they play a role in its global “war on terror” and the looming strategic rivalry with the People’s Republic of China over the Pacific region. The U.S. must engage these microstates diplomatically if it wishes to secure this region. Diplomatic Retrenchment With the collapse of the Soviet Union 15 years ago, the perceived external threat to Oceania vanished, and there was a loss of interest in the region, particularly on the part of the United States and the United Kingdom. (The ter- rorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and the subsequent focus on the Middle East, with wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, only intensified the trend.) Since 1991, America has steadily dismantled its diplo- matic infrastructure across the Oceania region. Current- ly, the U.S. has diplomatic missions only in Fiji, Samoa, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau. In 1993, the Department of State closed its embassy in the Solomon Islands. (The embassy in Samoa was also scheduled for closure, but was kept open after congressional intervention.) In 1994, Washington closed its regional aid office in Fiji due to budgetary constraints. This retrenchment contrasts with the activity of the PRC in the region. Since 1975, when it established diplo- matic relations with Samoa, Beijing has steadily built a comprehensive network of diplomatic posts in Oceania. While the United States has been closing diplo- matic posts, China has opened embassies in Samoa, the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati and Vanuatu. The Cook Islands has established diplomatic relations with China; Niue would like to follow, but has been blocked by New Zealand. China now has more diplomats (although not more diplomatic posts) in the region than any other country. This shift has long-term strategic repercussions for the future of the Pacific Rim. Because the Foreign Service is often described as America’s first line of defense, this retrenchment of the diplomatic network is discouraging, to say the least. A lack of diplomatic outposts, with the ability to influence local island leaders and identify threats at an early stage, increases the potential for the growth of security risks to the U.S. The Threat of Terrorism In a paper prepared for the National Intelligence Council in November 2001 (“The Pacific Islands at the Beginning of the 21st Century”), Robert Kiste, an adjunct senior fellow at the East-West Center, observed that the Solomon Islands is a failed state, and warned that other microstates in the region are fragile and could easily fol- low the Solomons into chaos. Fiji and Vanuatu are prime candidates for this fate. In response, the Pacific Islands Forum commissioned a report in 2001 on security issues in four Melanesian states, and over half a dozen areas of common concern were identified. In particular, crime in the form of drug trafficking, gun running, smuggling of goods and people, money laundering and the illegal sale of passports were found to be on the rise. Further, the report indentified a decline in the general security envi- ronment, with small, ineffective police forces sapping con- fidence in law enforcement. These conditions apply in varying degrees to all the other Pacific microstates. F O C U S 40 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / N O V E M B E R 2 0 0 6 Since 1991, America has steadily dismantled its diplomatic infrastructure across the Oceania region. From 1994 to 1997, Kevin D. Stringer was a Foreign Service officer, serving in London and Washington, D.C. During the summer of 2005 he was a research visitor at the East-West Center in Honolulu, and has been an adjunct professor in international political economy at Thunderbird, the Garvin School of International Management.