PacNet #32 – Scholarships in the Pacific Islands are an urgent US national security issue

The April 2022 China-Solomon Islands security agreement has brought the Pacific Islands back into strategic focus for the United States. But far less attention has been dedicated to an area in the Pacific with huge national security implications, and where the United States lags far behind China: scholarships.

As of 2018, China’s government had awarded 1,371 scholarships to students from China’s Pacific partners (Cook Islands, Fiji, Micronesia, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, and Vanuatu). China allocates a total of 20-30 scholarships for each of these countries annually (conservatively, around 160 scholarships each year, pre-COVID). This is China’s largest scholarship program in the Pacific, but there’s also the China-Pacific Island Forum (PIF) scholarship, which has provided around 20 full scholarships annually since 2017 (and 10 annually before then), plus scholarships provided by Chinese companies like Huawei and China Harbor Engineering Company.

In the United States, a number of programs bring Pacific Islanders to the United States for vocational training: Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) programs offers training to security and civilian officials, the Pacific Islands Training Initiative focuses on financial management and program performance practices, and there is also the Pacific Islands Leadership Program. However, the only fully funded government scholarship program specifically for Pacific Islanders to study in the United States is the US South Pacific Scholarship. The USSP has been running since 1995, funding 93 Pacific Island scholars total to study in the United States. This past year, there were only three USSP awardees, compared to approximately 160 yearly scholarships awarded to Pacific Islanders by China pre-COVID.

The more Pacific Islanders study at Chinese institutions, the more sympathetic they will be to China when voting in an election or making policy decisions, and at least some of those scholars will ascend to positions of leadership in their country.

How could it be otherwise, given that China will have supported their educational and professional development, and they will have spent several years living there and making personal connections? (Granted, not all Chinese scholarships facilitate this, as some separate Pacific Islander students from Chinese students.) This is how China has built an alumni network in the Pacific Islands orders of magnitude larger than the United States, and if trends continue at their current rate, this “sympathy gap” will only grow wider.

Pacific Islanders do not want to study in China more than in the United States. For the 2021 USSP scholarship, over 300 applicants—more than the yearly total of scholarships that China offers—competed for just three slots. Pacific Islanders want educational, training, and development opportunities in the United States, but there aren’t enough pathways. So, many turn to China instead.

More US scholarships for Pacific Islanders would help the United States exert soft power in the region by, in the words of Joseph Nye, “getting other countries to want what [the United States] wants.” It would also be a way for the United States to invest in the future of the Pacific Islands. If Pacific Islanders can rely on the United States for critical short-term development needs, accepting deals from China will likely be less appealing, especially given the stringent conditions Beijing often attaches to such deals. The need for development assistance, particularly when it comes to climate change, puts many Pacific Island nations in a position where they may have to accept a deal that compromises their sovereignty.

Of course, other US allies in the region, such as New Zealand and Australia, offer plenty of scholarships for Pacific Islanders to help offset the lack of opportunities in the United States. But China has begun to step up its scholarship and vocational training plans in the Pacific. A recent deal includes adding over 2,500 scholarships in the next five years. Not only that, barring COVID restrictions, China hopes to start a new training program for young Pacific Island diplomats this year as part of a capacity-building plan, including seminars on Chinese governance. This should sound alarm bells in the US government. Equally worrying, China has offered scholarships to Pacific Islands military officers too, giving, for instance, a Fijian Naval officer a four-year scholarship to a Chinese University in 2018.

The United States should increase the number of—and funding for—Pacific Islands scholarship and training programs. Whether that means scaling up existing programs or creating new pathways, doing so is in the United States’ national security interests. It is also a win-win for both the United States and the Pacific Islands. The United States can challenge China’s expansion into the Pacific Islands, and the Pacific Islands can receive more of the education and training necessary to build up their local communities. Although the sweeping trade and security deal China proposed with 10 Pacific Island nations faltered in May, providing more scholarship and training programs for the Pacific will remove any temptation for such deals in the future.

Kimery Lynch (kimeryslynch@gmail.com) is a Projects Coordinator at the East-West Center in Washington DC.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #11 – The US Indo–Pacific Strategy: Don’t Overlook the Pacific Islands Region

This article summarizes the key recommendations found in his broader study of The United States’ Indo–Pacific Strategy and a Revisionist China: Partnering with Small and Middle Powers in the Pacific Islands Region.

If the past is precedent, as the Biden administration puts the finishing touches on its own Indo-Pacific strategy, one area will be largely overlooked: the Pacific Islands Region (PIR). The region has, in the past, been viewed as a tranquil backwater with little need for attention. Traditionally, the attention Washington did give the region was exclusively focused on Micronesia—a vast region containing both the Freely Associated States (FAS) and US territories such as Guam. The remainder of the PIR was often left in the hands of close US partners such as Australia and New Zealand. Washington’s strategic neglect of the PIR needs to end. While the United States has focused its attention elsewhere, China has established itself as a strong economic partner with a growing diplomatic network. If the Biden administration is serious about addressing China’s growing challenge to US interests across the world, it should not disregard a region where a little bit of attention, coupled with cooperation with like-minded partners, can go a long way.

My recent study on The United States’ Indo–Pacific Strategy and a Revisionist China: Partnering with Small and Middle Powers in the Pacific Islands Region provides an analysis of both US and Chinese influence in the PIR along with the important and growing role of regional friends and allies like Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Japan, India, and others. It argues that the PIR is just as crucial to maintaining a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) as is the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, or the Indian Ocean. Any continuation of the Indo-Pacific Strategy must not neglect the PIR. The Biden administration must focus on denying the use of the PIR to “unfriendly powers” for military purposes, as well as denying the ability of external powers to interdict vital sea lines of communication from the continental United States to Asia.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, Washington must—as part of its broader Indo–Pacific Strategy—embrace the increasing multipolarity of the region and look past the traditional division of labor between just Australia, New Zealand, and itself. The Biden administration must partner with like-minded nations of all sizes such as Australia, France, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and Taiwan  to reinforce broadly held international values conducive to a FOIP. To do this, the Biden administration should:

  • Go beyond its focus on the FAS and ensure its diplomatic engagement with the entire PIR is more consistent. An emphasis on the FAS, whilst warranted, has come at the detriment of Washington’s relationships in Melanesia and Polynesia. Raising the US delegation lead to the PIF to Secretary of State level or higher would demonstrate a positive step towards consistency.
  • Better acknowledge the strategic importance of the PIR. The 2019 Indo–Pacific Strategy Report did little to acknowledge the strategic importance of the PIR within its conceptualisation of a FOIP. Washington’s approaches thus far have given many in the PIR the impression that they are an “afterthought” or simply being “tacked onto the end” of the strategy.
  • Harness its key strengths: soft power and military relationships. The United States’ key strengths in the PIR are rooted in its strong historical, cultural, and linguistic connections to the region, as well as its military relationships. Washington can enhance these strengths through establishing:
  • Labor mobility schemes. Washington should consider expanding its existing arrangements with the FAS—which allows FAS citizens to work in the United States under special visa arrangements—to other PIR states. A similar model, called the Pacific Labor Mobility Scheme, has been employed successfully in Australia.
  • Military training, education, and joint–exercises. The United States should expand the number of joint exercises and training opportunities for PIR militaries. Furthermore, Washington should seek to expand its joint exercises and training opportunities to PIR states with security forces, but no standing militaries, such as Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.
  • Habitual military-to-island relationships. The United States should expand the US National Guard’s State Partnership Program in the PIR. With relationships already established between the Nevada National Guard and Tonga and Fiji, this should be expanded to include partnerships in Papua New Guinea (PNG), the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu.
  • Expanding the US Defence Attaché network. The United States currently only has one USDAO for the entire PIR, located in Suva, Fiji. The number of USDAOs in the PIR should be expanded, with a particular focus on PNG and Tonga. An alternative option may be supporting PIR states with militaries to establish Defence Attachés in Washington.
  • Expanding VOA presence into the PIR. The lack of VOA broadcasting in the PIR presents an opportunity for Washington to double-down on its strengths in the information domain. This should be a joint venture with PIR countries to develop local language broadcasting on Pacific-focused issues.
  • Expand its diplomatic footprint. The United States’ six embassies in the PIR—three of which are within the FAS—give an unfortunate impression of the low level of strategic weight Washington places on the region. Washington must expand its diplomatic footprint, especially in Melanesia and Polynesia.
  • Focus heavily on targeted engagement with rising regional powers such as PNG and Fiji. PNG and Fiji have distinguished themselves as emerging activist regional powers in the PIR. Both nations have the highest GDP and populations, and field the region’s two largest militaries. Although PNG and Fiji have certainly explored more independent foreign policies and international activism in recent decades—making them somewhat harder to influence—this also makes them effective vectors of influence in the PIR.
  • Avoid a “False Dichotomy” Trap in the PIR. The PIR has made it clear that the region does not want engagement to be framed within the context of competition with China. Although strategic competition may serve as one rationale for engagement, it should not drive engagement. Rather than focusing on countering China in the PIR, the focus should be on encouraging, facilitating, and cooperating with like–minded partners to engage with the PIR—this serves to reinforce international values, naturally counterbalancing China’s undue influence. Encouraging multi-polarity will help avoid creating a “false dichotomy” in the PIR, whereby PIR countries are seen to be choosing between just the United States or China.
  • Revisit the division of labor in the PIR. The United States can no longer afford to rely on its informal “division of labour” with Australia and New Zealand in the PIR. As a self-declared “Pacific nation,” the US must take up greater responsibility in its own neighbourhood if its “revitalised engagement” is to go beyond maintaining its defence and security arrangements in the FAS. The passing of the BLUE Pacific Act should be a priority for the Biden Administration’s approach to the PIR.
  • Engage like-minded partners.  Encouraging several like-minded—not necessarily strategically aligned—partners to pursue a concerted FOIP strategy will make it more difficult for Pacific Island leaders to play the “China Card” by diluting any perceived China-US strategic dichotomy in the region and crowding Beijing’s engagement. Ultimately, PIR states are sovereign states with their own respective agency; however, harnessing like-minded small and middle powers will help in filling gaps that Washington cannot commit to.
  • Ensure good governance and engaging Taiwan. Unlike many of the aforementioned like-minded powers, Taiwan has been actively courting the PIR for decades in its “checkbook diplomacy” with China. Although much of this activity has subsided, Washington should continue to seek out joint or even multilateral cooperation activities with Taipei in the PIR to ensure good governance principles are being upheld.
  • Better incorporate emerging small and middle external powers into the existing regional architecture. Many of the aforementioned external powers are already increasing their engagement with the PIR under their own regional strategies. Washington must work with like-minded partners to ensure these strategies are not being engaged in competition with each other, but rather, in unison. Existing groupings such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the Quadrilateral Defense Coordination Group, and FRANZ provide a strong basis for such coordination.
Patrick Dupont (pdupont.au@gmail.com) is a Non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum. He is currently completing a Master of Security and Strategic Studies from Macquarie University.

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