-President Joe Biden met Pacific island leaders for a second White House summit in just over a year on Monday, part of a charm offensive aimed at curbing inroads by China into a region Washington considers strategically crucial.
Before welcoming the island leaders, gathered under the umbrella of the 18-nation Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), Biden announced U.S. diplomatic recognition of two more Pacific islands nations, the Cook Islands and Niue.
“The United States is committed to ensuring an Indo-Pacific region that is free, open, prosperous, and secure. We’re committed to working with all the nations around this table to achieve that goal,” Biden said at the welcoming ceremony.
Biden pledged to work with Congress to provide $200 million more in funding for projects in the region aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change, spurring economic growth, countering illegal fishing and improving public health, according to a document issued after a working lunch with the group.
“These new programs and activities continue to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to work together with the Pacific Islands to expand and deepen our cooperation in the years ahead,” the document said.
A joint statement said the sides agreed to hold another summit in 2025 and political engagements every two years thereafter.
Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown, the island forum’s chair, called the summit “an opportunity … to develop our partnerships for prosperity.” He urged Washington “to actively engage at the highest level” in the 52nd PIF leaders meeting he would host in a few weeks to endorse its 2050 Strategy.
U.S. WANTS TO HELP ISLAND NATIONS FEND OFF CHINA
Biden hosted an inaugural summit of 14 Pacific island nations a year ago and was to meet them again in Papua New Guinea in May. That meeting was scrapped when a U.S. debt- ceiling crisis forced Biden to cut short an Asia trip.
Last year, his administration pledged to help islanders fend off China’s “economic coercion” and a joint declaration resolved to strengthen their partnership, saying they shared a vision for a region where “democracy will be able to flourish.”
Biden said recognizing the Cook Islands and Niue would “enable us to expand the scope of this enduring partnership as we seek to tackle the challenges that matter most to our peoples’ lives.”
He highlighted a personal link to the region – an uncle killed in World War Two after crash landing off the coast of Papua New Guinea. He said the summit, as then, was “to build a better world.”
In Baltimore on Sunday, Pacific island leaders visited a Coast Guard cutter in the harbor and were briefed on combating illegal fishing by the Commandant of the Coast Guard.
They also attended Sunday’s National Football League (NFL) game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Indianapolis Colts. Dozens of NFL players are of Pacific Islander heritage.
SOME SKIP SUMMIT
Representatives of all 18 PIF members attended the summit, but not all at leader level.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who has deepened ties with China, did not attend, and a senior Biden administration official said the U.S. was “disappointed” by that.
Washington appears to have made no progress on offers of substantial infrastructure funding and expanded aid to the Solomons. Sogavare visited China in July, announcing a policing agreement with Beijing that builds on a security pact signed last year.
The White House in 2022 said the U.S. would invest more than $810 million in expanded programs to aid the Pacific islands.
Meg Keen, director of Pacific Island Programs at Australia’s Lowy Institute, said that although the U.S. had opened new embassies and a USAID office in the region since last year’s summit, Congress had yet to approve most of the funding pledges made last year.
She added that Pacific island countries “welcome the U.S. re-engagement with the region, but don’t want geopolitical tussles to result in an escalation of militarization.” Vanuatu Prime Minister Sato Kilman also did not attend the summit. He was elected two weeks ago to replace Ishmael Kalsakau, who lost a no-confidence vote for actions including signing a security pact with U.S. ally Australia.
The U.S. is still negotiating to open an embassy in Vanuatu, but has not significantly increased engagement with that nation, which counts China as its largest external creditor. China signed a policing agreement with Vanuatu last month.
A senior Biden administration official said the U.S. was on track to open the Vanuatu embassy by early next year.
Fiji has welcomed the stronger U.S. regional presence as making the Pacific “more secure,” but Kiribati, one of the most remote Pacific island states, 2,500 miles (4,000km) southwest of Hawaii, said this year it plans to upgrade a former World War Two airstrip with Chinese assistance. A $29 million program to assist Kiribati youth find work internationally was signed at the summit.
Washington renewed agreements this year with Palau and Micronesia that give 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 U.S. nuclear testing in the 1940s and 50s.
The summit statement said the U.S. “plans to work expeditiously to meet the needs of the Republic of the Marshall Islands through ongoing Compact negotiations” and was committed to addressing its “ongoing environmental, public health concerns, and other welfare concerns.”