Biden hosts Pacific island leaders in US charm offensive vs China

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WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden is hosting Pacific island leaders for a second White House summit on Monday, part of a three-day US charm offensive to block further Chinese inroads into a strategic region Washington has long considered its own backyard.

Ahead of a White House welcome for the leaders, Mr Biden announced US diplomatic recognition of two more Pacific islands nations: the Cook Islands and Niue.

The United States will also promise new money for infrastructure for the region, including to improve Internet connectivity via undersea cables, and honour regional leaders at an NFL game.

Mr Biden held an inaugural summit with the islanders at the White House a year ago and was due to meet them again in Papua New Guinea in May. That plan was scrapped when a US debt-ceiling crisis forced Mr Biden to cut short an Asia trip.

At the 2022 summit with 14 Pacific island nations, Mr Biden’s 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”.

The White House said that in 2023 it would focus on priorities, including climate change, economic growth, sustainable development, public health and countering illegal fishing.

In announcing recognition of the Cook Islands and Niue as sovereign and independent states, Mr Biden said the move 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 said the US has a long history of cooperation with the Cook Islands, dating back to World War II, when the US military built airport runways in one of the chain’s atolls.

He said Niue played “a critical and constructive role in the Pacific”, including by supporting sustainable development, security, and marine protection and ocean conservation.

In Baltimore on Sunday, Pacific island leaders visited a Coast Guard cutter in the harbour and were briefed on combating illegal fishing by the commandant of the Coast Guard, an official said.

They also attended Sunday’s National Football League game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Indianapolis Colts. Dozens of NFL players are of Pacific Islander heritage.

Some skip summit

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who has deepened his country’s ties with China, will skip the summit. A senior Biden administration official said the US was “disappointed” by Mr Sogavare’s decision.

Washington appears to have made no progress on offers of substantial infrastructure funding and expanded aid to the Solomons.

Mr Sogavare visited China in July, announcing a policing agreement with Beijing that builds on a security pact signed in 2022.

The White House in 2022 said the US would invest more than US$810 million (S$1.1 billion) in expanded programmes to aid the Pacific islands.

Ms Meg Keen, director of Pacific Island Programs at Australia’s Lowy Institute, said while the US has opened new embassies and Usaid offices in the region since the 2022 summit, Congress has yet to approve the funds.

She added that Pacific island countries “welcome the US re-engagement with the region, but don’t want geopolitical tussles to result in an escalation of militarisation”.

Vanuatu Prime Minister Sato Kilman will also not attend the summit, his office told Reuters.

Mr Kilman was elected by lawmakers two weeks ago to replace Mr Ishmael Kalsakau, who lost a no-confidence vote for actions including signing a security pact with US ally Australia.

The US is still negotiating to open an embassy in Vanuatu, but has not significantly increased its engagement with the nation, which counts China as its largest external creditor.

China in August sent police experts to Vanuatu and signed a policing agreement.

A senior Biden administration official said the US was on track to open the Vanuatu embassy by early 2024, and that other Vanuatu officials would attend the summit.

Fiji has welcomed the stronger US regional presence as making the Pacific “more secure”, but Kiribati, one of the most remote Pacific island states, 4,000km south-west of Hawaii, said it plans in 2023 to upgrade a former World War II airstrip with Chinese assistance.

Washington renewed agreements in 2023 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 US nuclear testing in the 1940s and 50s.

A Biden administration official said it was confident of concluding a deal with the Marshall Islands. REUTERS

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