RENO, Nevada — On May 4, 2021, Rep. Ed Case [D-HI-1] introduced H.R. 2967, the “Boosting Long-term U.S. Engagement in the Pacific Act,” or the “BLUE Pacific Act.” This bipartisan legislation will establish a new framework for United States foreign policy, security and development in the Pacific Islands that prioritizes economic and social well-being, empowering Indo-Pacific nations to address ongoing challenges augmented by the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters and changes in climate. If enacted, H.R. 2967 will expand diplomatic relations between the United States and Pacific Island nations, advancing regional security challenges and U.S. national security interests while alleviating poverty.
The Economic State of the Pacific Islands
Approximately 10 million people live in the Pacific Islands, according to 2014 data, which comprises three geographic regions: Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia. Approximately three-quarters of the Pacific Islands’ inhabitants are concentrated in Papua New Guinea, with the remainder of the population distributed across 14 other islands. In recent years, Pacific Island nations have experienced collective developmental challenges, ranging from their “distances from major markets” to their geographic and infrastructural vulnerability to natural disasters, “rising sea levels” and the effects of the changing climate.
In 2019, the U.N. reported that around 25% of Pacific Islanders live in poverty and women and young people, in particular, have a high unemployment rate. Additionally, according to UNICEF, about 40% of children on the islands are vulnerable to sinking into poverty.
Pacific Island nations face high economic vulnerability due to their small geographic size and populations, geographic detachment from crucial markets around the world and their susceptibility to extreme weather patterns and natural disasters.
A Lack of Resources and Funding
While many development initiatives have been implemented in the region, these programs are often inhibited by a lack of both natural and human resources as well as limited comprehensive plans and funding.
According to the Asian Development Bank, the Pacific Islands region has up to $2.8 billion in outstanding annual investment needs as well as $300 million annually for building climate resilience, through 2030. The U.S. government has given more than $130 million to assist the Pacific Islands in responding to the pandemic, but further support is warranted to help local economies recover from the pandemic.
Moreover, the Peace Corps has long had a significant presence in the Pacific Islands, with volunteers serving since 1966, exemplifying the U.S. commitment to regional prosperity and security and fostering interpersonal relationships. Before the pandemic, the Peace Corps was stationed in four Pacific Island nations: Tonga, Vanuatu, Fiji and Samoa. These programs came to a halt in early 2020 due to the onset of the pandemic, and today, there is high demand across the region for their return.
How H.R. 2967 Advances US Diplomatic Interests
The U.S. has a long history of diplomatic relations with the Pacific Islands. Notably, two U.S. territories, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, are located within Micronesia, and a third, American Samoa, is located in Polynesia. With respect to national security, U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific region are critical. As outlined in the BLUE Pacific Act, these national security interests include facilitating economic welfare and stability, strengthening trade and sustainable development, safeguarding democratic governance, promoting human rights and maintaining peace and security.
The passage of this legislation will bolster the U.S.’s crucial economic and diplomatic relationships with Indo-Pacific nations, enhancing regional security by protecting U.S. allies against military aggression.
How H.R. 2967 Will Help the Pacific Islands
The BLUE Pacific Act directs the U.S. State Department to expand the U.S. diplomatic and developmental presence in the Pacific Islands and develop and implement strategies to expand security assistance and ILEA (International Law Enforcement Academies Program) coverage, prioritize efforts to thwart transnational crime and coordinate these efforts with partner nations.
Once signed into law, the bill will also establish a series of development initiatives related to trade and public health, emergency preparedness and education assistance. It will also reopen and expand Peace Corps programs and strengthen climate resilience efforts in the region.
Furthermore, the bill directs U.S. agencies to promote shared democratic values, security and development in the Pacific Islands by providing assistance to improve media capacity building, broaden and diversify media content, support local journalists and implement regional programs for leadership, educational and professional development.
Finally, the bill directs the State Department and USAID (The U.S. Agency for International Development) to promote women’s empowerment and gender equality in these developmental initiatives.
H.R. 2967 authorizes $149 million in funding to sustain these development, security and value-based initiatives in 2022 and an additional $149 million annually through fiscal year 2026. The bill exhibits tremendous potential to help the region’s developmental needs and alleviate poverty while simultaneously advancing diplomacy and U.S. national security interests. While the bill has not yet passed the House of Representatives, growing national urgency about the need to bolster the U.S. presence in the Pacific Islands indicates that its passage may soon be on the horizon.
– Oliver De Jonghe