Power plays, not aid, the rationale for Partners in the Blue Pacific

Development assistance has been a longstanding promise made by the developed countries to the developing countries. But it is a promise that has persistently been subject to neglect, and it has all too often remained unmet.

That the United States and its partners have decided to offer development aid to Pacific island nations is not because of a sudden pang of conscience. In fact, the thought seems never to have crossed their minds until they realized China is extending a helping hand to countries in the region, at which point they formed the Partners in the Blue Pacific. The new pledge of "effective and efficient cooperation" with the region's small island nations would have remained unsaid were it not for China offering the island nations its support.

Even now, the PBP is conceived not as a means to provide assistance but as an instrument for geo-strategic competition with China. China signing a comprehensive cooperation agreement with 10 Pacific island nations has given rise to anxiety among the PBP members-the US, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom-that the Pacific island nations are falling into "Beijing's orbit". They are particularly concerned about a security pact China has signed with the Solomon Islands, which they fear heralds the Chinese military getting a base in the southern Pacific.

White House Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell claimed the US doesn't want to see zero-sum competition in the region, but he did acknowledge there is an "undeniable strategic component" to the US-led Western outreach. The "Pacific regionalism" the PBP seeks to elevate is clearly regionalism devoid of alleged Chinese influence.

As part of this endeavor, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken will reportedly host a meeting of the Partners in the Blue Pacific on Thursday on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York to coordinate "assistance" to the region.

The event is both a preparatory move for the September 28-29 summit meeting US President Joe Biden plans to host with Pacific island leaders and the first substantial step by the PBP since its establishment in June.

Despite the potential benefits of any assistance it may provide, the US-led Western aid program's geopolitical motives and mismatch with the recipient nations' development priorities may prove to be outstanding roadblocks constraining the progress to its desired outcome.

No Pacific island nation wants to see their neighborhood become a venue for major power rivalry. They are well aware that Washington's traditional idea of balance of power and strategic competition means they are viewed as expendable tools to achieve its purpose.

Just as regional leaders stated earlier this month, their most urgent security threat is climate change, not the kind of geostrategic game the US and its PBP cohorts are attempting to drag them into.