This op-ed by Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) first appeared in Defense News on August 19, 2022.
If anyone doubts Beijing’s commitment to aggressive Pacific expansionism, its response to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan should remove any lingering uncertainty.
The Communist government amped up its rhetoric mightily and threatened to hold America “responsible”—perhaps, some believe, with military action. The question for U.S. officials goes beyond the speaker’s travel. How we conduct diplomacy in the Pacific has been a long-term challenge, and we’re out of time to mull strategic solutions without implementing them.
One of the clearest and easiest steps that Congress can take is to establish a special envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). Similar to the European Union, the PIF is an international organization and includes Australia, New Zealand, and Pacific Island nations.
The United States invests a lot of diplomatic elbow grease into Indo-Pacific players like Japan and Korea, but we’ve overlooked smaller, yet strategically important countries like Fiji and Kiribati. Meanwhile, China has been deepening its roots across the South Pacific. It’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, made an eight-day tour of the region this May after formalizing a security deal with the Solomon Islands.
China continues to wrap its economic, diplomatic, and military tentacles around smaller nations, and implications stretch far beyond Taipei. During World War II, Kiribati’s airport allowed American planes to refuel in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Now, reports indicate that Kiribati will make a deal with China to upgrade its runway. No doubt Beijing recognizes the military significance of that airstrip. Apparently, the U.S. didn’t. Kiribati’s ambassador to the U.S. said the country asked Washington for help but was rebuffed.
The Solomon Islands and Kiribati may not be eager to yoke themselves to the Chinese Communist regime, but America isn’t positioning itself to give these countries better options. The U.S. doesn’t have a special envoy to the PIF, but China does. On this front, though, we can pivot on a dime to raise America’s diplomatic presence significantly.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and I are now giving Congress a bipartisan solution that the White House has already indicated it supports. Since there are no ambassadors to the PIF, the U.S. and Pacific Islands Forum Partnership Act would establish a special envoy there. The Senate-confirmed role would elevate diplomacy in the region since it would offer the same access to the Oval Office as an ambassadorship. The position would also have the same accountability to Congress.
The U.S. can’t afford to be ignorant of the economic investments and military overtures China is making to our neighbors in the Pacific. Kiribati turned from diplomacy with Taiwan to China in 2019 and cut ties with the PIF this summer. Other Pacific Island nations could follow suit.
Developments like this make it easier for China to divide and conquer—especially when small yet strategic states sense apathy or inertia in Washington. A special envoy would help answer the Communist threats across the board by deepening trust and increasing dialogue on the PIF’s economic, cyber security, and military concerns.
With members of both parties in Congress and the White House on board with establishing a permanent envoy to our friends in the South Pacific, we could and should cement this win quickly at a time when China’s growing belligerence doesn’t give America a moment to lose.