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Small Island Developing States face an influence gap – here’s how they can close it


In Insights Posted

By Jesse Schatz

As the world teeters on the precipice of a new era of great power competition, the geopolitical importance of island countries within U.S. grand strategy has markedly increased. This focus has primarily centered on the collection of island nations and territories dotting vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean, ostensibly to counter Beijing’s influence in the same region. The globalization of this emerging U.S.-China rivalry, combined with worldwide concern for rising sea levels—an issue of naturally high importance to low-lying island nations—has ushered a period in which small island developing states (SIDS) can exercise a geopolitical relevance and influence that outweighs the importance typically ascribed to SIDS, which by definition are small and underdeveloped economically.

However, though both the U.S. and China have identified SIDS as important loci in the pursuit of international hegemony, structural factors stemming from the qualities of smallness, remoteness, and underdevelopment have impeded, and could continue to impede, SIDS’ ability to leverage their newfound importance to influence favorable geopolitical outcomes at the bilateral level.

A renewed focus on SIDS
The Biden Administration has made a concerted effort to increase engagement with island nations in the Pacific, Indian Ocean, and the Caribbean.

In the Pacific, this has included the opening of embassies in Tonga and Solomon Islands, and the announced intention to establish U.S. embassies in Kiribati and Vanuatu. Additionally, in the last year, the U.S. has announced its intention to create a ‘Special Envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum,’ declared its engagement with Cook Islands and Niue would take place on the basis of sovereignty, and signed a bilateral defense cooperation agreement with Papua New Guinea. August brought the opening of a USAID office in the latter, with an additional installation in Fiji. Finally, in 2023, the U.S. re-upped Compact of Free Association (COFA) agreements with Palau and Micronesia, with negotiations for Marshall Islands currently ongoing. President Biden is expected to host leaders from several of the aforementioned nations for the second time later this September in Washington, D.C.

In the Indian Ocean, in June, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a re-opening of the U.S. Embassy in Seychelles after a 27 year absence, while in May U.S. Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Richard Verma became the highest-ranking U.S. official to ever visit Comoros on a multi-island tour that also included stops in Seychelles and Mauritius. Previously, in the final months of the Trump Administration, the U.S. announced its intention to open a dedicated embassy in Maldives, and signed a defense cooperation agreement with the country.

Finally, for the Caribbean, during her 8 June appearance at the U.S.-Caribbean Leaders Meeting, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris announced Washington, D.C.’s  intention to open two new embassies in yet-named countries in the sea’s eastern region.

The challenges SIDS face on the global stage

Much has been written about how the United States’ renewed focus on these island nations is a response to Chinese interest in the same theatre. Less attention, however, has been paid to the factors determining SIDS’ ability to leverage the focus paid to them by great powers to achieve favorable outcomes on political, defense, and climate issues topping their agendas.

SIDS face high structural barriers to achieving their goals through bilateral engagement—namely, small populations, remoteness, and lack of economic resources. Tuvalu, for example, is currently mounting an innovative international effort to have its maritime integrity preserved irrespective of whether its landmass is swallowed by sea-level rise. The nation has a population of only 11,204, according to a 2021 estimate. This small talent pool from which to establish a diplomatic corps naturally imposes constraints on the ability to simultaneously establish embassies in influential capitals and delegations to multinational organizations. Tuvalu is not unique in this regard, and such limitations force SIDS to make stark prioritizations of where to distribute human capital, thereby sacrificing developing bilateral relations and influencing agendas in capitals abroad.

Tuvalu is not alone. Among the recently announced U.S embassies, including Solomon Islands, Seychelles, Vanuatu, Tonga, and Kiribati, none have embassies in Washington. For most, their engagement with the U.S. is conducted through accredited permanent missions to the UN in New York. This solution, though better than no presence, emphasizes SIDS traditional focus on influencing outcomes through multilateral action, at the expense of bilateral engagement.

Costs can also prove prohibitive, dissuading many SIDS from establishing physical presences, and therefore strong bilateral relations in Washington, D.C. Maldives operated an embassy in the U.S. in 1965, only for its mission to be closed due to budgetary concerns. The embassy was re-opened in 2007, but subsequently shuttered in 2008, re-opening again in 2023. In the interim, Maldives utilized its permanent mission to the UN as a stand-in for an embassy in Washington. To its credit, Maldives’ influence at the UN, which included the Maldivian Foreign Minister’s Presidency of the 76th UN General Assembly, stands as a masterclass in SIDS’ ability to gain stature within multilateral organizations. However, Maldives is an exception that confirms the rule, and the impact of such inconsistent representation in Washington on SIDS’ ability to build relationships and gain long-term support and familiarity with their causes is self-evident.

Why SIDS need to focus on engagement in Washington

Both as a category, and as individual nations, SIDS are facing critical junctures on issues related to politics, defense, and climate. To name a few: Solomon Islands is facing increased scrutiny from the west after ethnic unrest was followed by a series of new agreements with China; Nauru is pushing to obtain the first license from the International Seabed Authority to begin deep-sea mining operations; Tuvalu seeks to gain international support for its efforts to save its islands from sea-level rise; and Marshall Islands continues to seek adequate renumeration for the long-lasting health and environmental impacts resulting from the U.S’ testing of nuclear weapons near the atolls in the 1950s. These are just some of the complex issues impacting SIDS, each of which could stand to gain from enhanced channels to communicate their priorities with Washington on a bilateral basis. However, the previously mentioned characteristics related to smallness and underdevelopment will almost necessarily remain a prohibitive factor preventing SIDS’ from establishing the relationships with lawmakers and influential media required to tilt American discourse in their favor.

Still, just as these factors impose constraints, they also expedite innovation, and SIDS’ leaders and legislators, as demonstrated by Maldives’ UNGA presidency or Comoros’ ongoing African Union presidency, have proven their ability to navigate multinational organizations.

The dawning period of renewed great-power interest in SIDS will likely place a greater weight on bilateral relations, requiring SIDS to develop new methods to ensure their priorities are not lost amid the competing efforts of great powers.

Jesse Schatz is a Director at Qorvis in Riyadh.