In late March, the United States announced the launch of the Small and Less Populous Island Economies (SALPIE) initiative, a framework designed to enhance economic relations with the islands of the Pacific, Caribbean, and North Atlantic regions. Although the United States has yet to release specific details, the program will broadly focus on combating the economic and public health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, mitigating the effects of climate change, and strengthening multilateral and bilateral relations in other areas. In doing so, the United States hopes to build on existing partnerships with Pacific Island countries to reinvigorate US-Pacific Island relations.
The SALPIE initiative recognizes that, due to their reliance on tourism, Pacific Island countries have faced disproportionate economic hardships resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. To address these immediate concerns, the United States has provided vaccines and humanitarian aid to the region; however, the initiative also seeks to advance long-term economic objectives. Some of these goals include countering predatory investment practices, facilitating public-private partnerships to finance projects, and improving coordination with international organizations.
Another major aspect of the initiative is to increase efforts to combat the effects of climate change. Pacific Island Countries hardly contribute to global carbon emissions yet face immense challenges resulting from rising sea levels and more volatile weather conditions, which have destroyed crop-growing lands, harmed critical island wildlife, and worsened damages from natural disasters. By bolstering cooperation in this area, the United States and Pacific Island countries hope to reduce the region’s vulnerability to climate change and promote economic resiliency.
Aside from improving coordination on economic and environmental priorities, the SALPIE initiative also outlines opportunities to engage in other areas, most notably security and defense. The United States has military partnerships with Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and Tonga—the only three Pacific Island countries with standing militaries—and operates the Ronald Reagan Missile Defense Test Site on the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. More recently, in August 2020, the Wisconsin National Guard and Papua New Guinea forged a new partnership that will focus on conducting military-to-military engagements and increasing capacity-building with the local Papua New Guinea community. Coupled with these existing relationships, the SALPIE initiative offers the United States a way to renew its focus on Pacific Island relations amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ryan Woock is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and a senior at the University of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.