This piece was adapted from the closing plenary at Ocean Nations: An Indo-Pacific Islands Dialogue, held this month in New York City. The event featured Kurt Campbell, who serves as deputy assistant to the president and coordinator for the Indo-Pacific for the National Security Council, and was moderated by Evan Feigenbaum, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment. The event concluded with questions from the audience.
The discussion, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, is below.
Evan Feigenbaum: Can you talk a little bit about what’s changed over the past twenty to twenty-five years?
Kurt Campbell: The circumstances in many of these Pacific island nations are much more dire than they were in the past. Their livelihoods are threatened. Climate change is existential. They face enormous challenges of governance. COVID harmed most of these nations substantially, with the cutoff of visitors and tourists, and even narrow business interests were badly hurt. So I would begin with that—that the need is great.
There is an undeniable strategic component. We’ve seen in the past several years a more ambitious China that seeks to develop a footprint militarily and the like in the Indo-Pacific. I think that has caused some anxiety with partners like Australia, New Zealand, even countries in the region as a whole.
There’s also a deeper recognition that in the past we have perhaps paid lesser attention to these critical places than we should have. And I think being honest about that is important. When I first started traveling to the Pacific, we had robust aid programs. We had very strong ongoing Peace Corps programs across much of the Pacific. We did more in terms of Coast Guard deployments and the like. Some of those over time atrophied. And now we’re in the process of rebuilding all of those and more.
One of the things that we’ve tried to do [is] the launch of what we call the Partners in the Blue Pacific. The Blue Pacific is the blueprint of the Pacific Island nations: what they see with respect to what they want to do in their own future. We have tried to put together an unofficial grouping of like-minded nations—the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Great Britain, [and] a few others will join. But the idea being: what are the best practices for dealing with certain problems? How can we combine our joint efforts? In fact, much of the aid and assistance in the Pacific is not as well-coordinated as it could be. We have not learned as much about best practices. We’re going to seek to do that as we go forward, building on the existing institutions.
Evan Feigenbaum: How much does the Indian Ocean factor into your thinking? Somebody on one of the panels said that the United States had not put out a specifically Indian Ocean strategy since something like 1971 or 1972. That could be because the United States doesn’t prioritize it, but it could also be because the United States has a more integrated concept now through this notion of “Indo-Pacific.”
Kurt Campbell: In many respects, what happens in government is that there are certain lines of demarcation. And so sometimes one group of people that works on the Indian Ocean is different from the group of people that work on the Pacific Islands.
But I would say that essentially some of the challenges are identical: the challenges of climate change, a degree of strategic competition, big powers showing greater interests. And I think you’re beginning to see a greater degree of coordination among various countries.
Evan Feigenbaum: Could you look ahead to the summit that the president’s going to do with Pacific Island leaders?
Kurt Campbell: We have had island summits before. [But] we’ve never had Pacific island leaders to the White House. This is a two-day event, so it is not just one or two meetings. This is a very sustained effort that will involve almost all the key players in the U.S. government who have interests in the Indo-Pacific.
We will have a session at the Chamber of Commerce that will be about addressing business engagement in the Pacific that is carefully designed [for] specific industries that have interests in the Pacific, whether it’s resources or tourism or eco-farming. We will be meeting at . . . the headquarters of the Coast Guard that will be announcing new initiatives. . . . There will be substantial events at the State Department. Secretary [John] Kerry will host on climate. We’ll engage senior officials from USAID, from the Pentagon, from the Department of the Interior, [and from the Department of] Homeland Security. And then it will culminate in what we hope will be an intimate and wonderful sustained dinner that the president will host—a first of its kind in the White House. The goal here will not be just to listen but also put on the table substantial resources and commitment—and not just in one or two areas, but in dozens of areas.
This is a region that has been disappointed before. Sometimes expectations get raised, [and] they’re unfulfilled. We understand that the bar is high. And I think what we’re going to try to do is to fulfill those expectations. I think what is different than what I’ve experienced in the past—you know what it’s like in government: sometimes it’s hard to get people motivated to make sure that other people share a sense of what’s critical. I see none of that now. I see a substantial group of people from the president on down that recognizes our historical interests and our current interests.
Evan Feigenbaum: How much does strategic competition with China factor into the kind of dialogue that the United States is now having with island countries and partner countries more broadly?
Kurt Campbell: There is an undeniable strategic component here. I don’t think it would be credible to deny this, 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 programs on the table with respect to climate change and resilience and illegal fishing and unexploded ordinance—all the things that the Pacific Islanders have made quite clear to us for a substantial period of time.
Part of what is concerning is that what we have seen . . . what appears to be the Chinese export of technologies and approaches that are basically designed to replicate certain elements of authoritarian leadership, right? Those capabilities tend to be more interesting and appealing and worrying in environments where governments are weaker [and] institutions are more challenged. Even though the Pacific does have some strong governments and countries that are stable, there are also very clear challenges where corruption is prevalent and certain practices can have detrimental effects. And I think the desire of all the partners is to underscore our commitment to more effective governance, to transparency, and the like. And the hope here is that the region does not descend into a kind of zero-sum competition but rather embraces a deep engagement around things that we think all these nations care about and are critical for their longer-term survival and success.
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 it feels like every other week she’s visiting. Can you just talk about how you’re thinking about external partners? Are there places you want to fold behind other external partners, particularly on the financing side? Are there things that partners can do that the United States is content to have them front and center?
Kurt Campbell: Our efforts are both complimentary and, in some cases, joint. . . . I interact with my Australian [and] New Zealand colleagues now every day about the Pacific. We are working to coordinate our efforts across the board, and this is a healthy, positive development. . . . When we roll out the Partners of the Blue Pacific on Thursday, it will not just be what I would call the usual suspects of countries that have long-standing interests in the Pacific. You’re going to see some new countries that are rising to the challenge of doing more in the Pacific diplomatically, in terms of business prospects, and aid and assistance. So that’s our task: not only to step up individually but in concert with others. And if we’re able to do that, I think we will be more effective in matching our potential with the goals and aspirations of the people of the Pacific.
Darshana Baruah, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: In the past two days, we’ve heard a lot on the issue of climate change and access to climate finance. But what islands are saying is that none of these issues are new, but the attention to that region is new. Are you worried that the messaging to island nations is Washington unintentionally saying that if you want to get our attention, first get Beijing’s attention?
Kurt Campbell: I do not believe that the dominant issue here is that it’s simply a competition between the United States and China or between China and other countries in the region.
I do believe that the issues that we are confronting are enormous. They are recognized as such in the corridors of power in Washington and elsewhere. And I have no problem basically standing up with a straight face and saying, “Look, this is essential that we meet some of these challenges today to be an effective leader in the Indo-Pacific.”
And I will simply say the framing of the Indo-Pacific speaks for itself, and we can’t be in a situation that the latter part of that framing gets not enough resourcing and engagement. And so part of this is simply being true to our intellectual and strategic moorings.
Ryo Nakamura, Nikkei Asia: Most of the panelists in this event said the climate change is a No. 1 national security threat for the Pacific island nations, but the U.S. policy on climate change has changed drastically depending on who has control of the White House. How will you convince Pacific island nations that the United States is a reliable partner to address climate issues for the decades to come?
Kurt Campbell: It’s 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 a very polite sort of mateship celebration of the United States and Australia, you could sense with many of the Australians the enduring questions were: What’s going to happen to American power? Can we rely on the United States as a steady, stabilizing, determined, engaged presence?
And I’m not suggesting that countries are fully satisfied with every element of the Biden administration. . . . But countries do worry about a departure from those longer-term, bipartisan traditions. We saw a hint of that during the Trump administration. And I think countries do worry about a return to a period in which the United States reevaluates every element of its international engagement and seeks to put its own interests first and without much consideration 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 do believe that our best policies are those that share bipartisan consensus. And I would say, at a general level, the Indo-Pacific is one region in which 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 this would not be a divisive issue, that it would be viewed in its true existential essence. And we’re not sure where this heads into the future as the intensity of storms and other things play out. Remember a huge part of the Republican base lives in rural areas. I think we’ve seen that in many respects some of the biggest changes are affecting rural areas. You would think that at some point along this path, there will be recognition accordingly. But I can’t tell you that I’m completely comforted by the fact that one party in the United States essentially denies many critical aspects of what I think is obvious with respect to the enormous challenges of climate change.
Eon Marlo, Bloomberg News: [What’s] the role of the Quad 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, unofficial, but critical institution going forward. . . .
The Quad is engaged in issues of critical import to all four nations. We spent a lot of time during the first and second summits focusing on the issues of Southeast Asia. At the last in-person Quad [meeting] in Japan, the four nations committed to new, completely innovative technologies that will allow countries to track basically unidentified fishing fleets, which have ravaged the Pacific. They turn off their IFF transponder and sail unknown into waters to fish. These new satellite capabilities make that impossible [and] make it easier for these small poor island nations to police vast areas of waters that are still rich with fish. So, yes, the Quad is committed to this as we go forward to the Indo-Pacific.
I would conclude by saying that I think that the United States needs to step up its game across the Indo-Pacific. And we have a number of challenges that we’ve seen historically in the Middle East and more urgently in Europe. But the United States, as a great power, has the capacity to operate effectively with the understanding that really for the first time in our history, the Indo-Pacific is going to be the most important, enduring set of strategic challenges and opportunities confronting [Washington] going forward. And I think that is undeniable in a bipartisan context and hopefully something that we can build on as we go forward.