US President Joe Biden announced $810 million in new funding for the Pacific islands on Thursday at a first-class summit with their leaders in Washington, pledging closer cooperation with a strategic but sparsely populated region where China penetrates.
Speaking to leaders of states in the South Pacific, including 12 heads of state and government, Biden said he wanted to show an “enduring commitment”, adding: “The security of America, frankly, and the world depends on your safety.”
Alluding to China’s rise in Asia, Biden said, “Much of our world’s history will be written in the Indo-Pacific in the coming years and decades, and the Pacific Islands are a critical voice in shaping of that future.”
The United States has been the main player in the South Pacific since its victory in World War II. But since Washington often takes the region for granted, China has strongly asserted itself through investment, police training and, most controversially, a security pact with the Solomon Islands.
One of the US pledges at the summit was $20 million for the Solomon Islands to develop tourism. Contrary to China’s hands-off mercantilism, the four-year US program will focus on empowering women and finding alternatives to logging.
– ‘Existential’ climate threat –
The bulk of the new funding, $600 million, will come in the form of a 10-year package in the South Pacific to clean up and develop dirty water to support the tuna industry.
The United States will also increase support to adapt to climate change, with Biden telling leaders, “I know your nations feel it acutely — for all of you it is an existential threat.”
Biden separately announced that the United States would recognize the Cook Islands and Niue, a self-governing territory whose foreign and defense policy and currency is tied to New Zealand.
This move will allow the United States to increase its diplomatic footprint in the Cook Islands and Niue, which have fewer than 20,000 inhabitants but form a vast economic zone in the South Pacific.
Biden launched a new engagement strategy and also appointed an experienced US ambassador to the region, Frankie Reed, as the first-ever US envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum.
The United States previously announced the restoration of an embassy in the Solomon Islands and the White House said on Thursday that US embassies would also open in Tonga and Kiribati.
The United States Agency for International Development will open a regional mission in the Pacific in Fiji by September 2023, and Peace Corps volunteers will return to Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu and possibly the Solomon Islands, the White House said.
In line with its focus on alliances, the Biden administration recently formed the Blue Pacific Partners with Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Great Britain.
The White House said Canada and Germany will join and that France — itself a power in the South Pacific — as well as the European Union, South Korea and India would participate as nonmembers.
– Solomon Islands See progress –
While many leaders in the Pacific have welcomed US involvement, the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogavare, has warned of competition between the major powers.
Speaking to AFP, Sogavare said negotiations in Washington on a partnership declaration have allayed his concerns “in a positive way”.
“We had specific issues with certain regional organizations, such as ASEAN and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, as there has been no consultation with them with small island nations in the Pacific,” said Sogavare, referring to the Southeast Asian bloc and the four-sided Quad. of the United States, Australia, Japan and India.
Sogavare said his government also tried to insert language about a “cessation of hostilities and a peaceful solution to the war in Ukraine”.
The United States says it has not taken Russia seriously about a negotiated settlement and on Wednesday approved a new $1.1 billion weapons package to Ukraine.
Western officials and analysts fear Beijing will use the Solomon Islands as a base to expand militarily into the Pacific or to put pressure on Taiwan, a self-governing democracy claimed by China.
Sogavare has denied plans for a Chinese base and Beijing has said its growing South Pacific activity is “not aimed at third parties”.
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