Chairman Diaz-Balart, Ranking Member Lee and distinguished members of the Committee:
Thank you for the opportunity to testify today in support of a strong Fiscal Year 2024 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations bill that increases investment in U.S. re-engagement in the Pacific Islands and follows through on our critical recent commitments to our partners throughout the Indo-Pacific.
The Pacific Islands region has long held strategic and cultural importance to the United States. Countless servicemembers lost their lives or were wounded in the Pacific Islands during World War II, fighting for both the security of the United States and a free Indo-Pacific. Following the war, the United States became administrator of the United Nations-designated Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (today’s Compacts of Free Association countries) and developed and sustained relationships with the many countries and other jurisdictions throughout. However, our ngagement unfortunately waned over time and suffered from decades of insufficient attention, a situation the pacing challenge of China has been only too willing to exploit.
Recognizing the need for substantial re-engagement in the Pacific Islands, the Fiscal Year 2023 Omnibus/State and Foreign Operations bill set aside $150 million for the Pacific Islands region. It also set aside in report language $4 million for trade capacity building activities and $20 million for climate mitigation and adaptation efforts in the Pacific Islands. This was in addition to other amounts appropriated in other titles, especially Defense.
With your help, the State Department will use the Fiscal Year 2023 funds to build off prior strides towards bolstering our Pacific Islands partnerships. For example, an embassy reopened this year in Solomon Islands, and the process is underway to open embassies in Kiribati and Tonga. The administration also hosted the first ever U.S.-Pacific Islands Summit in Washington, D.C. and committed to providing an additional $810 million in investment in the region.
However, these strides come after decades of neglect to counter the one-side narrative China has offered in the region. Our Pacific Island partners are hopeful but understandably skeptical of our long-term commitment to the region. For them, it remains to be seen if we mean what we say and if we are truly the partner they can again rely on for their present and their future. This makes it all the more vital that we fully back our commitments to the Pacific Islands in our foreign policy budget.
This means sustaining the $150 million set aside for the Pacific Islands in Fiscal Year 2023 with a modest increase for Fiscal Year 2024. It also means following through on the promises outlined in the Roadmap for a 21st Century Pacific Islands Partnership, released at the U.S. Pacific Islands Summit. That includes funding for the return of Peace Corps volunteers; bolstering efforts to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing; supporting trainings and scholarships for Pacific Islanders to study in the United States; and providing support for climate resilience projects, civil society and trade development.
Finally, we also must ensure that the executive branch has the capacity to smoothly launch and support these new initiatives. Though staffing is increasing in the region and in D.C., the State Department still has less than 10 staff members assigned to the 14 independent Pacific Islands nations. There is only one U.S. Agency for International Development officer assigned to the Pacific Islands. This must be scaled up if we want the United States to be an effective partner in the region, and must in any event be scaled up if the substantially increased funding we have already directed and are directly is to be efficiently and effectively spent.
I also note that while other bureaus at State have control of flexible funding for democracy and governance projects, the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs does not. A fund controlled by the Bureau to invest in projects in the Pacific Islands as opportunities present themselves would allow it the flexibility to be proactive and nimble in its outreach to the region. These flexibilities are necessary if we want to offer a viable alternative to a very nimble and proactive China.
Though successive administrations led by both parties have emphasized the need to shift the focus of U.S. foreign policy west to the Indo-Pacific, we have far to go and time is critical. Indo-Pacific engagement has been a motif in the 2015, 2017 and 2022 National Security Strategies, and was followed through with successive Indo-Pacific Strategies. We must now mobilize the resources needed to realize the aims of these critical documents and fully appropriate relevant strategies and initiatives. Strategic documents are a starting point, but they do nothing without resources and investment.
I urge you to craft a Fiscal Year 2023 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations bill that follows through on U.S. commitments to the Pacific Islands and the Indo-Pacific broadly. We have made progress, and our diplomats are working hard to realize our aims. However, without funding to support our commitments, promises made by our diplomats will ring hollow. Now is the time to ensure that our foreign policy budget reflects the importance of our ties to the Pacific Islands and our support for a secure and stable Indo-Pacific.