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Biden vows to address Pacific island needs

President Joe Biden promises the Pacific leaders the US is working to strengthen ties, as Washington unveils plans to counter China’s influence in the region.

September 30, 2022
30 September 2022

President Joe Biden has told Pacific Island leaders the US is committed to bolstering its presence in their region and becoming a more collaborative partner as they face the “existential threat” of climate change.

The president addressed the leaders who gathered in Washington for a summit as the White House looks to improve relations in the Pacific amid growing US concern about China’s growing military and economic influence.

“A great deal of history of our world is going to be written in the Indo-Pacific over the coming years and decades,” Biden said at the start of a meeting with island leaders at the State Department.

“And the Pacific Islands are a critical voice in shaping the future, and that’s why my administration has made it a priority to strengthen our partnership with your countries.”

Biden delivered his remarks as his administration unveiled its Pacific strategy, an outline of the White House’s plan to assist the region’s leaders on issues such as climate change, maritime security and overfishing.

The administration also pledged that the US would add $US810 million ($A1.3 billion) in new aid for Pacific Island nations over the next decade, including $US130 million on efforts to stymie the impacts of climate change.

Leaders from Fiji, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, the Cook Islands, French Polynesia and New Caledonia attended the two-day summit that Secretary of State Antony Blinken began on Wednesday.

Vanuatu and Nauru sent representatives, and Australia, New Zealand and the secretary-general of the Pacific Island Forum sent observers.

The president hosted leaders for a dinner on Thursday evening at the White House.

The summit comes amid worrying signs to the US that Beijing has grown its influence in the region. Earlier this year, the Solomon Islands signed a new security pact with Beijing.

The Marshall Islands this month suspended talks to renew its security partnership with the US, citing the longstanding impact of US nuclear testing some 70 years ago.

A joint declaration at the end of the summit included a nod to those concerns, stating the US was committed to addressing the Marshall Islands’ environmental and public health concerns, and “the safe removal and disposal of unexploded ordnance”.

Among the new initiatives the White House announced are plans to ask Congress for $US600 million over 10 years to support economic development, promote climate resilience efforts for Pacific fisheries and more.

The administration says it will also establish a regional mission of the US Agency for International Development in Suva, Fiji. The White House also reiterated previously announced plans to open embassies in the Solomon Islands, Tonga and Kiribati.

It also announced plans to recognise the Cook Islands and Niue as sovereign states, rather than self-governing territories, after “appropriate consultations”.

The strategy document notes “heightened geopolitical competition impacts” for the Pacific Island countries that also directly affect the United States.

“Increasingly those impacts include pressure and economic coercion by the People’s Republic of China, which risks undermining the peace, prosperity, and security of the region, and by extension, of the United States,” the strategy document says.

Before the summit, the Solomon Islands signalled it was unlikely to sign on to an end-of-summit joint statement. But in the end, the Solomon Islands signed on to the joint declaration. The statement instead included calls for bolstering the Pacific economy, tackling climate change, maintaining peace and security across the Pacific, and more, but avoided any direct mention of China.

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