Israel in the Pacific Islands



By Uditha Devapriya

Not unlike Central Asia, the Pacific Islands region has attracted the attention of superpowers and middle powers. The 14 countries that make up the region – Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Palau, Tonga, Tuvalu, Samoa, Vanuatu, Micronesia, Kiribati, Nauru, the Marshall Islands, the Solomon Islands, Cook Islands, and Niue – have stayed aloof, preferring to side with the US and the West on account of US military aid but also because they view the US as a safer bet in the Pacific. Yet of late, one emerging state after another has been sending delegations to these countries. And the PIR has been responding proactively.

At the UN most of these countries have been consistent on the Israel-Gaza issue: they have either abstained or voted against resolutions calling for a humanitarian ceasefire. On the face of it, this is intriguing. The Pacific Islands Region (PIR) is very much part of the Global South, of Asia and Africa. These countries lie at the intersection of the Global South and the Indo-Pacific.

Economically they would benefit from integrating with the Global South: some of them have already finalised agreements with China. Culturally they share much with an Afro-Asian and Global Southern identity. As small states, it hence makes sense for them to side with the Global South over issues like Israel and Gaza.

To be sure, some of these countries are realising this. The Solomon Islands, for instance, backed the most recent resolution. Last year it entered a policing deal with Beijing, a move that worried the US to such an extent that Washington opened an Embassy there last February. According to Al-Jazeera, China has emerged as the region’s biggest lending partner, behind the ADB. While the PIR has traditionally recognised Taiwan over China, both Kiribati and the Solomon Islands broke ties with it four years ago. China’s moves in the region have compelled India to step in; Delhi has sounded ominous warnings about Chinese intentions (read “debt-trap diplomacy”) in the Pacific.

These island states have, surprisingly, been more willing to welcome China and other powers than change overnight their stance on Israel and Gaza. Ironically these countries made up three of the nine opposition votes that the US mustered at the recent UNGA resolution. While commentators imply that their choice may have been shaped by US aid to the region, however, this does not align with the region’s willingness to accommodate China. A more plausible explanation would be that the PIR countries see the Israel-Gaza War as a far-off, and in their scheme of things irrelevant conflict, one on which they can afford to align with Washington and broader US policies in the Middle-East.

Israel itself has been a willing and consistent source of aid for the region, particularly to countries like Micronesia, Palau, and the Marshall Islands. Unlike the rest of the region, these three countries benefit from financial “free association” compacts with Washington. On the other hand, Israel has been cultivating ties with such states, doling out financial assistance and development aid whenever and wherever they can. As Daniella Cheslow notes in a perceptive article in Tablet Mag, this goes back to the inception of Israel, when, in 1958, it established a foreign aid department, the Mashav.

For some reason, Israel’s foreign development diplomacy has never been seriously examined by international relations scholars, perhaps because development diplomacy is seen – and not altogether wrongly – as the preserve of superpowers, middle powers, and emerging powers. Where does Israel fit in this equation? If it can project its soft power – which is, after all, a reflection or refraction of the hard power it musters courtesy of US military aid – in countries as far off as Nauru, that would make it a middle power, capable of cultivating goodwill in the most unlikely countries. Sri Lanka is no exception to this: as the Labour and Foreign Employment Ministry’s decision to send 10,000 workers to Israel, on International Migrant’s Day no less, makes it clear, Israel has found footing here too.

The difference between Sri Lanka and the Pacific Islands, of course, is that the Pacific Islands fall under the US’s orbit. Yet with China investing heavily in the Pacific and India trying to outrace China in the region, and South Korea not far behind, the US is losing its grip. It has already lost its moral grip and moral power: if the results of the recent UNGA resolution are anything to go by, not even its most fervent allies can ignore or resist the onslaught of public pressure in the Global South.

The PIR countries that vote against these resolutions may be seeing the Israel-Gaza conflict on the same terms as India sees the Russia-Ukraine conflict: as a development which does not concern them. To paraphrase Foreign Minister Jaishankar, for these states, the Middle-East’s problems aren’t their problems.

US commentators seem to think this indicates strong pro-Israel sentiment in the region. But such sentiments are not shared by everyone. The former Prime Minister of Fiji, who lost power in December 2022, for instance, criticised the country’s decision to vote against the October 28 resolution, saying it “did not reflect the view of most Fijians” and went against Fiji’s commitment to building peace abroad.

On the other hand, right after Hamas’s October 7 attack, Palau’s President despatched a letter to Benjamin Netanyahu reiterating solidarity with Israel. Some commentators have underlined historical reasons for such support: Israel was among the first countries to recognise these states when they declared independence. Others point at cultural values: countries like the Marshall Islands have significant Christian populations, and this supposedly tilts them towards Israel.

It would be futile to try making sense of these developments on historical and cultural grounds. There are deeper, more fundamental reasons for PIR support for Israel. In any case, even this thin wedge of support is crumbling down and fading away. If all the US can muster at the UN are votes of three PIR countries, and if it has failed to convince allies like Ukraine – which abstained from the latest resolution – to vote with them, then Washington has failed. The PIR countries are already turning away and looking to the Global South. It would be in their interest, in line with broader geopolitical shifts, to turn away quicker and to take more strident positions on issues which unify the Global South – like Gaza.

The writer is an international relations analyst, independent researcher, and freelance columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com.