Student Spotlight: Ma’ili Yee Illuminates a Vision for Building the Blue Pacific Continent

With support from Shorenstein APARC’s Diversity Grant, coterminal student Ma’ili Yee (BA ’20, MA ’21) reveals how Pacific island nations are responding to the U.S.-China rivalry by developing a collective strategy for their region.
Portrait of Ma'ili Yee, 2020-21 APARC Diversity Fellow

The Pacific islands are known for their tropical climate, lush landscape, and rich cultures, but as coterminal student Ma’ili Yee has learned, they also form a backdrop to multiple geostrategic agendas in the Pacific Ocean region. In her recent research, Yee focuses on the vital economic, military, and geopolitical roles the Pacific island nations play at a time when the U.S.-China great power competition is generating renewed interest in the region.

Yee received her BA in International Relations in 2020 and is completing her MA in East Asian Studies this summer. She has been interested in Sino-U.S. relations in the South Pacific and noticed the scarcity of materials that incorporate Pacific Islander perspectives on the geopolitical developments in the region and how the island nations are affected by and responding to the tensions in the U.S.-China relation. She set out to study these issues.

Yee’s research over the past year has been supported by the Shorenstein APARC Diversity Grant. As part of its commitment to promoting inclusion and racial justice at Stanford, APARC established the grant in summer 2020 to support students from underrepresented minorities interested in studying contemporary Asia. Yee is the grant’s inaugural recipient.

Yee originally intended to use the grant to conduct field research in Fiji and Tonga but had to adjust her plans due to restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. She ended up studying primary source materials shared online by country members of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), an inter-governmental organization that aims to enhance cooperation between countries and territories of the Pacific Ocean region, including the formation of a trade bloc and regional peacekeeping operations.

Multiple Islands, One “Blue Continent”

Yee’s research reveals that Pacific island nations do not share the same strategic and diplomatic agendas of traditional powers. Rather, in recent years, they have developed a more assertive diplomatic posture, becoming highly involved in promoting blueprints that are vital to their objectives and creating their own framework for defining strategic priorities in the Pacific region. Most importantly, as Yee explained in a recent presentation to the APARC community, Pacific island nations reject being viewed as pawns in a power game by larger states, particularly amidst the intensifying U.S.-China competition.

Against the framework of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific, island nations have endorsed a collective framework they call the Blue Pacific. The Free and Open Indo-Pacific, which was introduced by Japan and later formalized by the United States, is a strategic vision that often privileges the Indian Ocean over the Pacific Ocean and prioritizes U.S.-led maritime concerns.

By contrast, the Blue Pacific vision is grounded in Pacific island nations’ perspectives. It emphasizes the opportunity to leverage their collective oceanic presence and focuses on their concerns, foremost of which are climate change and sustainable development. The Blue Pacific advocates for a long-term foreign policy commitment to act as one “Blue Continent” while also calling for greater international coordination. PIF member countries are currently developing these priorities in their vision for the future, the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent. “The uncertainty of COVID-19,” write PIF Members, “only reinforces the need for a long-term strategy for how we work together as one Blue Pacific.”

By consolidating their interests as a unified political bloc, Yee concludes, Pacific Island nations now exercise significant agency in determining the trajectory of their region and using their voices to shape multilateral initiatives such as the Paris Agreement. External powers who seek to exercise influence in the Pacific Ocean region would do well to develop reciprocal relationships with island nations and consider their goals, she says.

Yee's research also examines the opportunities for fintech to promote sustainable development in the Pacific Ocean region and as an area for potential collaboration and competition amongst world powers as U.S.-China tensions continue to unfold.

“I am grateful to APARC for this Diversity Grant and for allowing me to do this kind of work,” says Yee. “It really would not be possible without such support, so it was cool to see this resource come out last summer.”

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