From childhood we learn about the world’s seven continents, defined by large land masses. But there is another continent out there, where the area of land may be small, but the ocean territory is vast. Think of it as the big Blue Pacific Continent.
Across the expansive Pacific Ocean, one finds small island states, from Palau to Fiji to the Marshall Islands. Consider Kiribati – a nation of islands spread across an expanse of ocean that abuts U.S. maritime zones. Kiribati’s land mass is only around 300 square miles with a population of just over 100,000. However, its maritime zones encompass 1.4 million square miles, twice the size of Alaska.
Since 1971, the Pacific Islands Forum has brought together 18 island nations and territories, including Australia and New Zealand, around a vision of “peace, harmony, security, social inclusion and prosperity.” The 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent guides how they navigate challenges such as climate change and leverage their collective strengths as a region to create a prosperous and sustainable future.
Last April, at the Our Ocean Conference in Palau, I met with and listened to Pacific Island leaders to discuss our negotiations to update the South Pacific Tuna Treaty that allows U.S. commercial fishermen to fish for tuna in the Pacific Islands’ waters.
The current Economic Assistance Agreement associated with the South Pacific Tuna Treaty provides economic assistance of $21 million a year. We viewed this as an opportunity to begin a new chapter in our partnership with our ocean neighbors. The objective was clear– it was time to work together for a better future.
Fast forward three months. The United States has increased its engagement in the broader Pacific Islands with a new positive agenda to address the short- and long-term challenges we share together – including the climate crisis and its impact on lives and livelihoods, illegal fishing, marine plastic pollution, maritime security, health security (including against climate-related threats), and fisheries-related economic development. This week, I was in Fiji to advance negotiations on the economic assistance agreement and convey the administration’s decision to request funding from Congress to triple the economic assistance for the Pacific Islands for a total of $60 million annually, $600 million over 10 years to address these shared priorities.
I was also there to commit to growing our work under the Tuna Treaty and discuss how we can help protect their vast maritime areas; deal with storm surge, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and other threats from climate change; and, together, prepare for extreme weather that is becoming more frequent and devastating.
The Tuna Treaty is not only just about tuna anymore.
Our new engagement with Pacific nations comes from the highest levels of our government. Vice President Harris addressed the 51st meeting of the Pacific Island Forum and declared the opening of a new chapter of our long-standing relationship with the region. She announced a series of actions to increase our work with our Pacific partners.
- Begin discussions with Kiribati and Tonga about our interest in opening embassies in those countries
- The Department is on track to open a U.S. embassy in the Solomon Islands
- Appoint the first-ever U.S. envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum
- Design and release the first-ever U.S. national strategy on the Pacific Islands
- Bring the Peace Corps back to the Pacific
- Progress toward re-establishing a USAID regional mission for the Pacific based in Suva, Fiji
- Implement and advance the Partners in the Blue Pacific
The opportunities for collaboration extend to the ongoing pandemic as well. The U.S. supply of vaccine doses has helped to keep the number of COVID deaths in some countries such as Palau – where the vaccination rate exceeds 99 percent – in the single digits.
The United States is in the region to stay. We want to support the Blue Pacific Continent as it creates a healthier, more prosperous, and more secure future. We believe the rules-based order benefits those big blue spaces, keeping them peaceful, full of life, and free from crime, and pollution.
As Vice President Kamala Harris said, “We have a strong foundation. And we will build on this and embark on a new chapter, all in the spirit of partnership, friendship, and respect.”