US and Japan to Increase Involvement with Pacific Island Countries

Evan Berridge
Evan Berridge
Evan is an analyst specializing in Indo-Pacific affairs and has over 5 years of experience as a freelance writer.

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The United States and Japan are increasing their presence in the South Pacific to counter the increased Chinese expansion and bolster the defenses of Pacific Island Countries (PICs) and the existing American and Japanese presence.

Recent Efforts by the Japanese Ministry of Defense

The Japanese Ministry of Defense is increasing efforts to bolster the local police on island nations that do not have formal militaries, with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida outlining the plans in an announcement at the Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting, held later this month from July 16th to July 18th in Tokyo.

Last month, the ministry ran the Ship Rider Cooperation Program, where police forces from various island nations sailed from the US territory of Guam to Japan on an Izumo class helicopter carrier belonging to the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force. Once they arrived in Japan, training courses on disaster response were held. Compared to last year’s ten participants, only seven attended this year.

The Japanese Ministry of Defense holds an instructional course for police forces from Pacific Island countries. Source: Jiji Press

Of the 14 island nations in the Pacific, only three—New Guinea, Fiji, and Tonga—have professional militaries.

In January, the Japanese Ministry of Defense instructed police officers in the Solomon Islands on how to dispose of unexploded shells, likely older WWII-era examples. This would mark the first bilateral aid for a non-military partner. Similarly, Tonga also requested non-military security forces aid after the ministry provided maintenance on the outboard motors on the vessels in Tonga’s Navy.

In December 2023, Japan and Fiji agreed to a deal worth $2.48 million (400 million yen), in which Fiji was granted small patrol and rescue boats.

Similarly, Japan has also helped develop infrastructure, including ports, bridges, roads, power plants, and airports in countries such as the Republic of Palau, Kiribati, Vanuatu, and Papa New Guinea. The Japanese Ministry of Health and Human Services gave the medical ship Liwatoon-Mour to the Marshall Islands and rebuilt the Gizo hospital on the Solomon Islands after a large earthquake damaged it in 2007. The Japanese Coast Guard has sent vessels and personnel to patrol the waters and instruct PIC authorities to crack down on illegal fishing in several of the nation’s territorial waters.

Recent Efforts by the United States Coast Guard

The US House Committee on Appropriations passed measures last month giving additional funding to foreign affairs programs and homeland security for the 2025 fiscal year. The measures gave $2.1 billion toward the US government’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, and another $175 million went to aid for PICs.

The United States Coast Guard (USCG) was reportedly the only organization mentioned by name in the Indo-Pacific Strategy and falls under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) rather than the Department of Defense (DoD).

Current legislation will allow the USCG to base another medium-endurance cutter in District 14, an area that encompasses the PICs, and increase overall funding for USCG operations in the area. Another $3 million went to regional USCG advisors, and an additional $1.2 million went to the USCG Indo-Pacific Workforce Support Project, which provides child and health care as well as housing in Guam and Hawaii. Lastly, a new pier will be built on the Sand Island base with more facilities and a report for Coast Guard Air Station Barbers Point infrastructure.

In 2023, the USCGC Harriet Lane, a medium-endurance cutter, also known as “270” because of the 270-foot length (82.2 meters), was sent to Honolulu as the first “Indo-Pacific Support Cutter,” which helped to crack down on illegal fishing in the area by running patrols in affected areas.

Photo of the USCGC Harriet Lane, which was sent to the South Pacific to aid Pacific Island countries. Source: USCG

The Importance of the Increased Presence

The United States and Japan’s increasing presence in the South Pacific among the island nations is to counter Chinese activity and attempts to spread influence in the area, as well as for economic and security reasons. This is especially apparent, as some of the island nations have embassies in China, which China could use to increase diplomatic and economic influence in the region. There could also be some political influences, one goal could be to recognize the People’s Republic of China instead of recognizing Taiwan (the Republic of China). Both nations have expressed a need for the Indo-Pacific to remain free, stable, and maintain order under the rule of law, free from conflict. By maintaining relationships with the island nations in the area, Chinese influence can be kept in check. By working together, Japan and the United States will continue to develop their already close relationship.

Increased involvement by the United States could also mean more cooperation with other countries in the Indo-Pacific, such as Australia and New Zealand. European partners could also take an interest. For example, the United States, along with Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, formed the Partners in the Blue Pacific to bolster security and economic prosperity. Germany, Canada, and South Korea have since joined, as the European Union has taken an interest.

The United States already has several crucial installations in the Pacific, such as Guam. Both the United States and Japan would want to protect islands such as Guam, as the islands are the United States’ westernmost territory. During times of conflict in the region, having a greater foothold in the South Pacific could mean better supply lines and logistics.

Increasing maritime traffic in these island nations could mean their economies will likely grow and expand, which could improve the lives of the inhabitants. Any human rights violations, elections marred by irregularities, or other forms of corruption that would prevent increased cooperation with the United States and Japan could be investigated and resolved to allow for further cooperation. Other important topics, such as climate change and illegal fishing, could be improved as well. The population’s ability to access clean water, food, and shelter could also begin to improve as more infrastructure is built or improved.