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Bureau of Political-Military Affairs's Office of Global Programs and Initiatives’ Director, Mr. Michael Smith, and the Honorable J. Uduuch Sengebau Senior, Vice President and Minister of Justice, PW stand next to each other, smiling, in a bright room.

On September 28-29, 2022, representatives of the Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of Fiji, Republic of Kiribati, Republic of Nauru, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Republic of Palau, Independent State of Papua New Guinea, Independent State of Samoa, Solomon Islands, Kingdom of Tonga, Tuvalu, Republic of Vanuatu, and the United States will gather in Washington D.C. for the first-ever U.S.-Pacific Islands Summit.  The Summit, which will be hosted by President Biden, will “demonstrate the United States’ deep and enduring partnership with the Pacific Islands and the Pacific region that is underpinned by shared history, values, and people-to-people ties.”   

The Summit will also offer opportunities to touch upon key issues such as climate change and the effects of natural disasters, how to safeguard the Blue Pacific Ocean and its resources, and ways to promote inclusive economic opportunity while ensuring peace and security.  The Summit will reinforce U.S. and Pacific Islands efforts to implement our respective guiding documents, including the Pacific Island Forum 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent and the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy, which promotes a free, open, transparent, prosperous, and resilient Pacific region.  Maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific region is vital to the economic prosperity and security of the United States and regional partners.   

Indo-Pacific Challenges  

Unfortunately, the Indo-Pacific region faces mounting challenges, including climate change, illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and illegal research activities in island nations’ exclusive economic zones, as well as predatory economic investments that undermine democratic governance and enable corruption and human rights abuses.  

Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) Activities:  The legal regime reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea provides for an EEZ extending up to 200 nautical miles from coastal baselines, within which the coastal state has sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing both living and non-living natural resources.  Bad actors are increasingly conducting activities in EEZs that are inconsistent with such sovereign rights, including interference with resource exploitation, IUU fishing, and conducting marine scientific research without coastal state consent. 

Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing:  According to President Biden’s National Security Memorandum on Combating Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing and Associated Labor Abuses, IUU fishing and related harmful fishing practices are among the greatest threat to ocean health and contribute to the collapse or decline of fisheries that are critical to the economic growth, food systems, and ecosystems of numerous Pacific Island nations.  These practices undermine the sustainability of fish stocks, circumvent conservation and management measures, and often go hand in hand with the use of forced labor and other illicit activities.   

Climate Change:  Climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security, and well-being of people in the Pacific, as stated in the Pacific Island Forum Leaders’ Boe Declaration on Regional Security.  Climate change is growing ever-more severe as glaciers melt, and the Pacific Islands battle rising sea levels.  

How the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs Helps to Promote “Governance of the Seas” 

Considering the strategic context and challenges mentioned above, and in support of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, the Political-Military Affairs Bureau seeks to improve maritime governance and institutional capacity in the Indo-Pacific region.  The Global Defense Reform Program (GDRP) is one tool for the United States to promote collective action in addressing these challenges unique to the Indo-Pacific in support of U.S. foreign policy priorities and international law.  Through GDRP, the Bureau provides several Pacific Island countries with regular advisory assistance to strengthen institutions to address our shared maritime security objectives, increase cooperation, and reinforce that the United States is a steadfast and reliable security partner in the region.  GDRP advisors coordinate closely with advisors from Australia, Japan, and other partner countries to promote an open, connected, prosperous, resilient, and secure Indo-Pacific.   

In the Federated States of Micronesia and Republic of Marshall Islands, GDRP aims to increase these nations’ ability to detect and counter illicit activities in their respective exclusive economic zones enhancing partner nations’ maritime domain awareness and by enhancing coordination and cooperation between law enforcement and the justice sector.  GDRP also provides advisory support to Vanuatu to assist in strengthening maritime security institutions and capabilities, in support of Vanuatu’s National Security Strategy.  The Bureau’s advisory support has enabled Vanuatu to improve the maritime domain awareness tools and procedures it uses to monitor its exclusive economic zone. 

GDRP advisors have also helped the Government of Palau to improve maritime governance and maritime domain awareness.  GDRP has assisted Palau with improving maritime governance and maritime security capacity through better monitoring and surveillance of Palau’s exclusive economic zones, and by identifying and countering illicit activities such as IUU fishing.  In support of expanding Palau’s relationships in the region, the Political-Military Affairs Bureau has worked side-by-side with Palau to engage with counterparts in the Philippines to share best practices, explore joint operations opportunities, and share experiences amongst maritime domain awareness specialists.  These efforts will strengthen Palau’s maritime security by increasing its capacity to monitor Palau’s exclusive economic zone and detect and interdict vessels engaged in unlawful activity, while also benefitting the government of the Philippines through improved awareness and monitoring capabilities in the Philippine Sea. 

The Bureau of Political-Military Affairs’ Office of Global Programs and Initiatives manages the Global Defense Reform Program (GDRP) that seeks to enhance security sector governance and institutional capacity.  Since the inception of the GDRP Program in 2018, the Bureau’s consultative and partnership-based approach to institution capacity-building has increased local ownership and sustainability of program objectives.  GDRP advisory assistance around the world continues to promote processes to mitigate the risk of corruption and enhance transparency within the security sector.  Thadvocacy of good practices in security sector governance advances U.S. national security and shared interests, and promotes the alliances and partnerships needed to succeed in today’s competitive geopolitical environment. 

About the Authors: Bex Melvin and Luke Hanstedt serve as portfolio managers in the Political-Military Affairs Bureau’s Office of Global Programs and Initiatives.  

U.S. Department of State

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