The Foreign Service Journal, November 2006

Beijing is laying the groundwork for a future contest between the United States and China for supremacy in the Pacific Ocean.” For small and nearly bankrupt countries like the Marshall Islands, offers of aid may be the key factor determining whether they should recognize Tai- pei or Beijing. But they may soon find themselves pawns in a much bigger game. Prescriptions The United States does not exhibit concern about the influence of other foreign governments in the Pacific islands today, nor does it appear to realize the need for measured diplomatic engagement with these microstates. The Government Accountability Office goes so far as to state that from a broader defense and security perspec- tive, island-nations like the Federated States of Micronesia and theMarshall Islands currently play no role in U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. The Department of Defense even describes the islands as U.S. defense obligations, not assets. (See “Kwajalein Atoll Is the Key U.S. Defense Interest in Two Micronesian Nations,” GAO-02-119, January 2002.) This is a mistaken view. The strategic vacuum slowly developing in the South Pacific can be halted by renewing U.S. diplomatic engage- ment in the region through physical presence, personal diplomacy and aid. In the old days, diplomatic and con- sular posts were scattered like pearls throughout numer- ous countries. Now, with modern technology and fiscal austerity, centralization of services in regional embassies seems to be the norm. Yet certain geographic environ- ments may require the very important symbolic and phys- ical presence of a resident U.S. diplomatic mission. Given the potential terrorist-basing threat and the competition from China, the Pacific microstates should be made exceptions to the centralizing trend. In line with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s transformational diplomacy initiative, the prescription is not necessarily to establish full-blown embassies in these locations — hardly feasible from a budgetary or staffing standpoint, in any case—but rather representative offices of one to two Foreign Service officers and an assistant, along the lines of the American Presence Post concept. The advantage of this arrangement is that at lower costs it still gives the U.S. a local presence to monitor the political environment, promptly report unfavorable developments and cultivate influence among senior government officials. As Beijing clearly appreciates, the symbolic significance of a resident great-power presence should not be underestimated in the Pacific island cultures. Similarly, the U.S. should increase the fre- quency of high-level visits to the microstates to offset PRC gains with island leaders, and increase aid to the region beyond current levels. Use of the diplomatic component of national power will have a number of benefits. First, the U.S. would exer- cise area denial for terrorists and Chinese influence. This would be in line with statements by some policymakers that indicate the United States has an obligation to deny military access to the vast area of the Pacific Ocean. Second, the U.S. would be better positioned for early warning, monitoring and the ability to influence these states through local diplomatic interaction. Third, com- prehensive diplomatic coverage of these microstates would enable alignment of their interests with the U.S. and, hopefully, secure voting support in the United Nations. Despite their small area and population, all of these states are recognized as sovereign entities, with all the diplomatic rights and privileges this status implies. Further, all except Niue and the Cook Islands are mem- bers of the United Nations, giving each voting rights in the U.N. General Assembly, other U.N. organs and a number of international organizations, where they could be valued allies on various global issues. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Dark Lord focuses so much on the conventional armies of his opponents that he overlooks the covert journey of the Ringbearer, who enters unnoticed through a back door, and ultimately destroys his realm. This analogy may be relevant for the United States, whose all-consuming focus on the Middle East has cre- ated a declining engagement toward other areas of the world such as Oceania. For a negligible investment, the U.S. could strengthen diplomatic ties with the Pacific island microstates, thus limiting the potential for terrorist activity and PRC inroads. F O C U S 44 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 The trend of recent years has been for Pacific island states to “look north,” and China has encouraged this process.