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Ranking Member Risch Opening Statement at Hearing on U.S. Strategy in the Pacific Islands Region

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today gave the following opening remarks at a full committee hearing on U.S. strategy in the Pacific Islands region. Witnesses included The Honorable Daniel J. Kritenbrink, assistant secretary at the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, The Honorable Ely Ratner, assistant secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, and The Honorable Michael Schiffer, assistant administrator at the Bureau for Asia at the United States Agency for International Development.

Ranking Member Risch gave the following remarks:

“Thank you so much, Mr. Chairman. And thanks to our witnesses for being here.

“Before I start on my prepared remarks, let me say on the China issue, like the issues we’re talking about today – this is bipartisan and we should do that. On February 6th, as you know, I wrote you a letter about this and we haven’t had a response to that yet. We should air these things privately and we’ll continue on I’m sure, but these are bipartisan issues, not partisan issues.

“We have a long history of friendship with the Pacific Islands, and this hearing comes as we usher in the next chapter of U.S. commitment to the region.

“Just last week, Congress acted to renew the Compacts of Free Association, as you noted Mr. Chairman. These agreements are foremost a promise to the three compact countries: Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau. Through these compacts, we partner with them to advance economic prosperity, provide for U.S. military veterans from these nations, promote cooperation in areas of law enforcement and judicial training, and much more.

“Further, our security partnerships with these states are critical. In World War II, we fought our way across the Pacific, costing significant American blood and treasure. We have been here decades, and with these agreements, we will stay for years to come. They are a strategic investment in our national defense and in our partners in the Indo-Pacific region.

“However, in order to maximize these partnerships, the administration must adjust its policies to demonstrate U.S. focus and commitment are not going anywhere.

“First, our diplomatic presence in this region still needs serious work. We have been too slow to get our diplomats permanently on the ground to push back against Chinese influence. I am also concerned about the lack of support for the diplomats we do have in the Pacific. 

“Nowhere is this more evident than the Solomon Islands. By the time the State Department started paying attention, China was already signing a major security agreement. When the Department asked for personnel for the post, it did not ask for a single public affairs officer to push back on Chinese propaganda.  

“This is a large globe, there’s a lot of countries, but my staff has been monitoring this particular region for the numerous important reasons that I just mentioned. This isn’t just about getting our people on the ground. Once there, they must be able to do their jobs and advance U.S. interests. It’s clear we are moving at the speed of bureaucracy, not the speed of relevance.

“I have sent five letters to Secretary Blinken urging a nuanced, expeditionary approach to our diplomatic expansion. I have encouraged using flexibilities that my Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act provides to stand up our diplomatic presence, and creating a South Pacific Management platform to improve support to these remote missions.

“The Solomon Islands example brings me to a second issue: security cooperation. In addition to greater Chinese military and law enforcement presence in the Solomon Islands, other nations continue to explore security arrangements with China.

“Luckily, in May 2022, Pacific Island countries came together and rejected China’s push for a region-wide security agreement. That was proof of what dedication to sovereignty and regional unity can achieve.

“Papua New Guinea – which just signed a new security pact with us last year – has been approached by China about a new security and policing arrangements. Chinese police are present in Kiribati, and we know China has set its sights on other nations.

“I would like the Departments of State and Defense to discuss the implementation of our security pact with Papua New Guinea and help the committee understand how this agreement serves our interests region-wide. I would also like an update on where Chinese security cooperation initiatives are causing the greatest concern, and how we are working with partners to address it. I would especially like the Defense Department to discuss Australia’s role in security for the Pacific Islands. We all know about AUKUS, but there’s certainly more to it than that.

“Finally, I would like an update on economic development in this region. I am aware of our work on undersea cables and illegal fishing, but want to know what other concrete projects we are pursuing. I want real details, not fuzzy descriptions about creating an enabling environment or building stakeholder networks.

“We know that some Chinese projects like a hospital in Fiji have backfired, but this means the U.S. and our partners need to get our act together more quickly. 

“With that, I’ll turn it back to the chairman.”

These remarks have been lightly edited for clarity. Witness testimony is available on