US draws closer to Pacific Islands partnership, pledges new assistance

US draws closer to Pacific Islands partnership, pledges new assistance

The United States says it has reached a “shared vision” of partnership with Pacific island nations, including new pledges of American aid, as concern grows over China’s growing influence in the region.

The United States kicked off its first-ever in-person summit on Wednesday with leaders from a dozen island nations covering large swaths of the Pacific Ocean.

US President Joe Biden will deliver remarks to Pacific Island leaders at the State Department on Thursday, then host a dinner at the White House.

“We have come together around a statement of partnership between the United States and the Pacific,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said as he held up a document during Wednesday’s working lunch with Pacific leaders at the Department. of state.

But the final language of an 11-point joint statement is still being worked out.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, greets dignitaries from Pacific Island countries during the United States-Pacific Island Countries Summit at the Department of State in Washington on September 28, 2022.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, greets dignitaries from Pacific Island countries during the United States-Pacific Island Countries Summit at the Department of State in Washington on September 28, 2022.

The Solomon Islands sent a diplomatic note to the Pacific Islands Regional Forum announcing that it would not sign the declaration at the high-level meeting.

The statement, which was drafted after several weeks of negotiations between Pacific island nations and Biden administration officials, covers issues such as practicing sustainable development, addressing climate change and maintaining security. of the Pacific region and its trade.

But Solomon Islands’ memo says the government and parliament need more time to study the declaration. Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, however, is in Washington and attending the summit, a senior administration official said.

Blinken announced Wednesday that the United States will contribute $4.8 million to a new program called Resilient Blue Economies that will strengthen marine livelihoods in the Pacific Islands by supporting sustainable fishing, aquaculture and tourism.

“Pacific Islanders are generally more interested in the conversation than the immediate deliverables of the summit,” said Brian Harding, senior expert on Southeast Asia for the US Institute of Peace.

Harding told VOA on Wednesday that “some leaders understandably considered the joint statement to have been rushed and are ultimately looking to see if the United States will meet its commitments and be consistent with its commitment in the future.”

Other experts said this week’s summit addresses what some see as Washington’s inattention to Pacific island nations.

A senior Biden administration official said that at the summit, the White House will release “a specific Pacific strategy for the first time.” The United States also plans to expand its diplomatic missions from six to nine across the Pacific.

“It’s part of our effort to solidify American relations with a part of the world that, frankly, has been somewhat neglected lately,” said Chris Johnstone, senior adviser at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“These are important countries, lots of resources, including fisheries, and a part of the world where there is growing concern about Chinese influence, the influence of the People’s Republic of China,” Johnstone told VOA, adding that China was seeking to establish military relations with some of them.

On Wednesday, Blinken hosted executives and senior officials for lunch. US climate envoy John Kerry hosted a session to discuss priorities for Pacific island nations, including climate resilience efforts and clean energy transformation.

On Wednesday evening, Pacific Island leaders were invited to the US Coast Guard headquarters for a dinner discussion on opportunities to enhance maritime security and combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

The Solomon Islands’ refusal to sign the declaration comes just five months after signing a security agreement with China, raising fears in the United States and Australia that Beijing would establish a military presence on the islands, located less than 2,000 kilometers from Australia.

A draft deal that had emerged on social media included a provision that could allow Beijing to send police and armed soldiers to the Solomon Islands, as well as base its navy ships off the coast of the island nation. .

Prime Minister Sogavare insisted he would not authorize the establishment of a Chinese military base, saying the deal would instead help ensure internal security.

An American delegation sent to Honiara failed to dissuade Sogavare from signing the security pact with China.

Earlier this month, the Marshall Islands suspended talks with U.S. officials on renewing the two countries’ strategic partnership, protesting what it perceives as the U.S.’s failure to address the health impacts and environmental effects of US nuclear testing in the region during the 1940s and 1950s.

“Nuclear legacy issues are a major sticking point in an otherwise very close relationship,” Harding said.

Vice President Kamala Harris told the Pacific Islands Forum in July that the United States plans to appoint an envoy to the Forum and open new embassies in Tonga and Kiribati as part of a commitment that United States would increase its diplomatic and financial support to the Pacific Region. She also announced that the administration has requested $60 million a year from the U.S. Congress, which would triple current funding for fisheries aid, marine conservation and climate resilience projects for the region.

Some information for this report comes from Reuters.

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