U.S. expands Pacific embassies; ambitious plans for region

Jul 23, 2023 | Blog, News, Pacific

The Biden administration is taking significant strides to expand its footprint in the Pacific islands, as revealed by a notice sent to Congress recently. The State Department’s plan includes a massive increase in diplomatic personnel and funding for facilities at new U.S. embassies in the region.

The strategic move entails the hiring of up to 40 staff members for each of the four recently opened or soon-to-be-opened embassies in the Pacific. These include the newly inaugurated embassies in Honiara, Solomon Islands (January), and Nuku’alofa, Tonga (May), as well as the planned embassies in Port Vila, Vanuatu, and Tarawa, Kiribati. Currently, the embassies in Honiara and Nuku’alofa only have two temporary American staffers each.

For the successful establishment of each embassy, the State Department is allocating a minimum of $10 million for start-up, design, and construction costs. While part of this amount is accounted for in the current budget proposal, an additional $3.3 million per year will be required for the maintenance and operational expenses of each new embassy.

The urgency to strengthen the U.S. presence in the Pacific stems from China’s rapidly increasing assertiveness in the region. Notably, China already maintains permanent diplomatic facilities in eight out of the 12 Pacific island nations recognized by the United States, prompting the need for swift action to bridge this gap.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Indonesia for a Southeast Asian regional security forum and the upcoming extended Pacific trip at the end of July underline the gravity of the situation and the administration’s commitment to reinforcing ties in the Pacific.

In the initial stages, the embassies in the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu, and Kiribati will have limited staffing, with only four resident American diplomats (including an ambassador), five local staffers, and an unspecified number of local security guards. However, the State Department envisions a significant increase in staffing over the next five years, potentially reaching 30 to 40 American and local employees at each embassy.

Yet, attracting experienced and skilled personnel to serve in remote Pacific locations with challenging living conditions proves to be a hurdle. The department acknowledges the need for incentives to recruit prospective employees effectively and suggests that Congress may need to allocate more funds to maintain competitiveness with China in the region.

The development of a cadre of Pacific experts necessitates an investment in resources and innovative solutions to attract and retain talent. Preserving an open, secure, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region requires robust engagement from the United States, and this ambitious plan aims to make that a reality.

While the notice highlights the urgency and importance of the measures, it does not go into detail about the specific resources and creative solutions required to achieve these goals. Nevertheless, the State Department’s efforts signal a determined move towards countering China’s influence and affirming the U.S.’s commitment to the stability and prosperity of the Pacific islands.