This article was adapted from the closing plenary of Ocean Nations: An Indo-Pacific Islands Dialogue, held this month in New York. The event featured Kurt Campbell, Deputy Assistant to the President and Indo-Pacific Coordinator for the National Security Council, and was moderated by Evan Feigenbaum, Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment. The event ended with questions from the audience.
The discussion, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, is below.
Evan Feigenbaum: Can you tell us a bit about what has changed in the last twenty to twenty-five years?
Evan A. Feigenbaum
Evan A. Feigenbaum is vice president of studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he oversees research in Washington, Beijing, and New Delhi on a dynamic region encompassing both East Asia and South Asia. .
Kurt Campbell: The situation in many of these Pacific island nations is much more serious than it was in the past. Their livelihoods are threatened. Climate change is existential. On the same subject : What does the US need in its South Pacific strategy?. They face enormous governance challenges. COVID has significantly harmed most of these countries, with visitors and tourists cut off, and even narrow business interests have been badly affected. So I would start with that—that the need is great.
There is an undeniable strategic component. We have seen in recent years a more ambitious China seeking to develop a military and similar footprint in the Indo-Pacific. I think that has caused some concern among partners like Australia, New Zealand, and even countries in the region as a whole.
Kurt Campbell is Deputy Assistant to the President and Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs at the National Security Council. Read also : Why China’s Influence in the Freely Associated States Matters to the United States.
There is also a deeper recognition that in the past we may have paid less attention to these critical places than we should have. And I think it’s important to be honest about that. When I first started traveling in the Pacific, we had strong support programs. We had very strong ongoing Peace Corps programs in much of the Pacific. We have done more in terms of Coast Guard deployments and so on. Some of them have atrophied over time. And now we’re rebuilding all that and more.
One of the things we’ve been trying to do [is] launching what we call Partners in the Blue Pacific. The Blue Pacific is the blueprint for Pacific island nations: what they see versus what they want to do in their own future. We’ve been trying to put together an unofficial group of like-minded nations – the US, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Britain, [and] a few more will join. But the idea being: what are the best practices for dealing with certain problems? How can we combine our efforts? In fact, much aid and assistance in the Pacific is not as well coordinated as it could be. We haven’t learned much about best practices. We will seek to do this as we move forward, building on existing institutions.
Evan Feigenbaum: To what extent is the Indian Ocean taken into account in your thinking? Someone on one of the panels said that the US hasn’t had a specific Indian Ocean strategy in place since something like 1971 or 1972. This could be because the US doesn’t don’t prioritize, but it could also be because the United States has a more integrated concept now through this “Indo-Pacific” notion.
Kurt Campbell: In many ways what happens in government is that there are certain dividing lines. And sometimes a group of people working on the Indian Ocean is different from a group of people working on the Pacific Islands.
But I would say that essentially some of the challenges are the same: the challenges of climate change, some degree of strategic competition, great powers showing greater interests. And I think you’re starting to see a greater degree of coordination between different countries.
Evan Feigenbaum: Could you anticipate the summit that the president will organize with the leaders of the Pacific islands?
Kurt Campbell: We’ve had island peaks before. [But] we’ve never had Pacific Island leaders in the White House. This is a two-day event, so it’s not about one or two meetings. This is a very sustained effort that will involve nearly all key players in the US government who have interests in the Indo-Pacific.
We will have a session at the Chamber of Commerce that will focus on business engagement in the Pacific which is carefully designed [for] specific industries that have interests in the Pacific, whether it is resources, tourism or of ecological agriculture. We will meet at . . . Coast Guard Headquarters which will announce new initiatives. . . . There will be important events at the State Department. Secretary [John] Kerry will be the climate host. We will engage senior officials from USAID, the Pentagon, the Department of the Interior [and the Department of] Homeland Security. And then it will culminate with what we hope will be an intimate and wonderful dinner that the President will host – a first of its kind at the White House. The goal here will not just be to listen, but also to bring substantial resources and commitment to the table, and not just in one or two areas, but in dozens of areas.
This is a region that has already been disappointed. Sometimes the expectations are high, [and] they are not met. We understand that the bar is set high. And I think what we’re going to try to do is meet those expectations. I think what’s different from what I’ve been through in the past – you know what it’s like in government: sometimes it’s hard to motivate people to make sure other people share an idea of which is essential. I don’t see any of that now. I see a substantial group of people, from the president down, who recognize our historical interests and our current interests.
Evan Feigenbaum: To what extent is strategic competition with China a factor in the type of dialogue the United States now has with island nations and partner nations more broadly?
Kurt Campbell: There is an undeniable strategic component here. I don’t think it would be credible to deny that, but at the same time I think there’s a recognition that the only way for the United States to be effective is to meet Pacific Islanders where they live.
The way to show that you’re relevant and that you care is if you have real agendas on the table when it comes to climate change and resilience, illegal fishing and unexploded ordnance – all things that the Pacific Islanders have made clear to us for a substantial period of time.
Part of what is concerning is what we have seen. . . what appears to be China’s export of technologies and approaches that are essentially designed to replicate certain elements of authoritarian leadership, correct? These capabilities tend to be more interesting, appealing, and worrisome in environments where governments are weaker [and] institutions are more contested. Even though the Pacific has strong governments and stable countries, there are also very clear challenges where corruption is widespread and certain practices can have adverse effects. And I think the desire of all the partners is to underline our commitment to more effective governance, transparency, etc. And the hope here is that the region doesn’t sink into some sort of zero-sum competition, but rather embraces a deep engagement around things that we think all of these nations care about and that are essential for their survival and success in long term.
Evan Feigenbaum: Australia has a new government. I’ve lost count of how many times [Foreign Affairs Minister] Penny Wong has been in the Pacific now, but I feel like she visits every other week. Can you just tell us how you view external partners? Are there places where you want to fall back behind other external partners, especially on the funding side? Are there things the partners can do to make the United States content with having them front and center?
Kurt Campbell: Our efforts are both complementary and, in some cases, joint. . . . I now interact every day with my Australian [and] New Zealand colleagues about the Pacific. We are striving to coordinate our efforts at all levels, and this is a healthy and positive development. . . . When we launch Blue Pacific Partners on Thursday, it won’t just be what I would call the usual suspects from countries with longstanding interests in the Pacific. You will see new countries rise to the challenge of doing more in the Pacific diplomatically, in terms of trade opportunities, aid and assistance. It is therefore our task: not only to intervene individually, but in concert with others. And if we are able to do that, I think we will be more effective in matching our potential with the goals and aspirations of Pacific peoples.
Darshana Baruah, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Over the past two days, we’ve heard a lot about the issue of climate change and access to climate finance. But what the islands are saying is that none of these issues are new, but the attention to this region is new. Are you worried that the message to island nations is Washington unwittingly saying that if you want our attention, get Beijing’s attention first?
Kurt Campbell: I don’t think the overriding issue here is that it’s just competition between the US and China or between China and other countries in the region.
I believe that the problems we face are enormous. They are recognized as such in the halls of power in Washington and elsewhere. And I have no problem standing with a straight face and saying, “Look, it’s critical that we address some of these challenges today to be an effective leader in the Indo-Pacific.”
And I’ll just say that the Indo-Pacific framing speaks for itself, and we can’t be in a situation where the last part of that framing doesn’t get enough resources and commitment. And so part of that is just being true to our intellectual and strategic moorings.
Ryo Nakamura, Nikkei Asia: Most panelists at this event said climate change is the No. 1 national security threat to Pacific island nations, but US policy on climate change has changed dramatically depending on who controls the White House. . How will you convince Pacific island states that the United States is a reliable partner in solving climate problems for decades to come?
Kurt Campbell: This is a critical point. Evan and I were at another conference earlier this summer with Australian friends, and I would say that beneath the surface of some kind of very polite celebration of US-Australian relations, you could feel with many Australians the lingering questions were: What will happen to American power? Can we count on the United States as a regular, stabilizing, determined, committed presence?
And I’m not saying countries are fully satisfied with every element of the Biden administration. . . . But countries fear deviating from these longer-term bipartisan traditions. We saw a hint of this during the Trump administration. And I think countries are worried about a return to a period where the United States is reassessing every element of its international engagement and seeking to put its own interests first and with little regard for others.
So I can’t give you a good answer. Our system does not allow us to make fundamental commitments for the next administration. But I believe that our best policies are those that share a bipartisan consensus. And I would say at a general level, the Indo-Pacific is a region where you have substantial alignment between Republicans and Democrats – not all Republicans and not all Democrats, but you see some alignment.
Climate change is an undeniable challenge. I think there was some hope at some point in the past that it wouldn’t be a divisive issue, that it would be considered in its true existential essence. And we don’t know where this is heading in the future, because the intensity of storms and other things play out. Remember that a large portion of the Republican base lives in rural areas. I think we’ve seen that in many ways some of the biggest changes are in rural areas. One would think that at some point along this path, there will be recognition as a result. But I can’t tell you that I’m completely comforted by the fact that one party in the United States is essentially denying many critical aspects of what I think is the obvious when it comes to the enormous challenges of climate change.
Eon Marlo, Bloomberg News: [What is] the Quad’s role in the South Pacific?
Kurt Campbell: The Quad, I think, is an extraordinarily important innovation for the Indo-Pacific. I believe it will become a defining institution, unofficial, but essential in the future. . . .
The Quad is engaged in issues of critical importance to the four nations. We spent a lot of time at the first and second summits focusing on Southeast Asian issues. At the latest Quad in-person meeting in Japan, the four nations engaged in ground-breaking new technologies that will allow nations to track essentially unidentified fishing fleets that have ravaged the Pacific. They turn off their IFF transponder and sail strangers into the waters to fish. These new satellite capabilities make this impossible [and] make it easier for these impoverished small island nations to monitor large swaths of still-fishing waters. So, yes, the Quad has committed to it as we move towards the Indo-Pacific.
I will conclude by saying that I think the United States needs to step up its game across the Indo-Pacific. And we have a number of challenges that we have seen historically in the Middle East and more urgently in Europe. But the United States, as a great power, has the ability to operate effectively with the understanding that truly for the first time in our history, the Indo-Pacific is going to be the most important and enduring set of strategic challenges and opportunities facing [Washington] in the future. And I think that’s undeniable in a bipartisan setting and hopefully something we can build on as we move forward.
Watch the full event on YouTube or use the player below. View more panels from the event, view an interactive map of the Indo-Pacific, or learn more about Carnegie’s Indian Ocean Initiative.
Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its directors.