WASHINGTON, Sept 25 (Reuters) – President Joe Biden met with Pacific Island leaders for his second White House summit in just over a year on Monday, part of a charm offensive aimed at curbing China’s incursions into a region Washington considers strategically important.
Before welcoming the island leaders gathered under the umbrella of the 18-nation Pacific Islands Forum, Biden announced US diplomatic recognition of two other Pacific island nations, the Cook Islands and Niue.
“The United States is committed to ensuring that the Indo-Pacific region is free, open, prosperous, and secure,” Biden said at the welcoming ceremony. “We are committed to working with all countries around this table to achieve this goal.”
Biden pledged to work with Congress to provide an additional $200 million to fund projects in the region aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change, stimulating economic growth, combating illegal fishing, and improving public health, according to a document issued after a working lunch with US President Barack Obama. group.
“These new programs and activities continue to demonstrate the United States’ commitment to working with the Pacific Islands to expand and deepen our cooperation in the years ahead,” the document said.
A joint statement said that the two sides agreed to hold another summit in 2025 and political engagements every two years after that.
Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown, chair of the Island Forum, described the summit as “an opportunity…to develop our partnerships for prosperity.” He urged Washington to “actively participate at the highest level” in the 52nd meeting of the leaders of the Public Investment Fund, which he will host in a few weeks to approve the 2050 strategy.
The United States wants to help island nations fend off China
Biden hosted an inaugural summit of 14 Pacific island nations a year ago and was scheduled to meet them again in Papua New Guinea in May. This meeting was canceled when the US debt ceiling crisis forced Biden to cut short his Asian trip.
Last year, his administration pledged to help the islanders stave off China’s “economic coercion” and issued a joint declaration aimed at strengthening their partnership, saying they shared a vision for a region “where democracy can flourish.”
Biden said recognition of the Cook Islands and Niue “will enable us to expand this enduring partnership as we seek to address the challenges that matter most to the lives of our two peoples.”
He highlighted his personal connection to the region, as his uncle was killed in World War II after making an emergency landing off the coast of Papua New Guinea. He said the summit, as before, was aimed at “building a better world.”
In Baltimore on Sunday, Pacific Island leaders visited a Coast Guard ship in port and briefed the Coast Guard commander on combating illegal fishing.
They also attended Sunday’s National Football League (NFL) game between the Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts. Dozens of NFL players are of Pacific Island heritage.
Some skip the top
Representatives of all 18 Palestine Investment Forum members attended the summit, but not all of them were at the leadership level.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manaseh Sogavare, who has worked to deepen relations with China, did not attend, and a senior Biden administration official said the United States was “disappointed” by that.
Washington appears to have made no progress regarding offers of major infrastructure funding and expanded aid to the Solomon Islands. Sogavare visited China in July and announced a conditional agreement with Beijing based on a security agreement signed last year.
The White House said in 2022 the United States will invest more than $810 million in expanded programs to assist the Pacific Islands.
Although the United States has opened new embassies and a USAID office in the region since last year’s summit, Congress has yet to approve most of the funding pledges made, said Meg Keane, director of Pacific Islands programs at Australia’s Lowy Institute. last year.
She added that Pacific Island nations “welcome US re-engagement in the region, but do not want geopolitical conflicts to lead to escalation of militarization.” Vanuatu Prime Minister Satu Kelman also did not attend the summit. He was elected two weeks ago to replace Ismail Kalsakau, who lost a vote of no confidence due to measures including signing a security agreement with Australia, an ally of the United States.
The United States is still negotiating to open an embassy in Vanuatu, but has not significantly increased its engagement with that country, which considers China its largest foreign creditor. China signed a conditional agreement with Vanuatu last month.
A senior Biden administration official said the United States is on track to open the Vanuatu embassy by early next year.
Fiji has welcomed a stronger US regional presence as making the Pacific “more secure”, but Kiribati, one of the most remote island nations in the Pacific, which lies 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) southwest of Hawaii, said this year it plans to modernize a pre-war system. Globalism. Two airstrips with Chinese assistance. At the summit, a $29 million program was signed to help Kiribati youth find work internationally.
Washington renewed agreements this year with Palau and Micronesia giving it exclusive military access to strategic parts of the Pacific, but has yet to do so with the Marshall Islands, which wants more money to deal with the legacy of massive US nuclear tests in the 1940s. And the fifties.
The summit statement said the United States “plans to act quickly to address the needs of the Republic of the Marshall Islands through ongoing agreement negotiations” and is committed to addressing “ongoing environmental, public health, and other welfare-related concerns.”
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington and Kirsty Needham in Sydney; Reporting by Mohammed for the Arabic Bulletin) Editing by Don Durfee, Grant McCall and Gerry Doyle
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