WASHINGTON, Sept 29 (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden, his administration pledging to help Pacific Island leaders stave off what it calls China’s “economic coercion,” promised them on Thursday to work harder with allies and partners to address their needs.
Leaders and representatives from 14 Pacific Island states are taking part in a two-day summit ending on Thursday.
It is the first time the United States has hosted so many leaders of a region it has considered a maritime backyard since World War Two, but into which China made steady advances.
Biden said the United States had launched an initiative this year called Partners in the Blue Pacific “to more effectively coordinate with our allies and partners around the world to better meet the needs of the people across the Pacific.”
He vowed to make a priority of strengthening the U.S. partnership with their countries and to help them address what he called the “existential threat” posed by the climate crisis.
“The security of America, quite frankly, and the world depends on your security and the security of the Pacific islands.”
Earlier, the United States released its first strategy for ties with Pacific island nations, noting that they faced urgent climate challenges and heightened geopolitical tensions.
Tune in as I host the U.S.- Pacific Island Country Summit and deliver remarks around the United States’ deep and enduring partnership with Pacific Island countries. https://t.co/2ocbhfmsnC
— President Biden (@POTUS) September 29, 2022
“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,” it said.
China says its ties with Pacific island countries are based on mutual cooperation, that the region is not the backyard of any country, and that Washington’s attempts to stir up opposition to China there will fail.
Some of the nations have complained about being caught in the middle of the superpowers’ battle for influence.
Biden’s administration has pledged “big-dollar” assistance to address climate, health and maritime security issues, and to boost communications links with U.S. partners like Japan, Australia and India.
A senior administration official said the United States would invest more than $810 million in expanded programs to aid the islands, on top of over $1.5 billion provided in the past decade.
That figure included a previously announced 10-year $600 million economic assistance agreement request to Congress to build climate resilience and maritime security for the island states, according to a White House fact sheet.
Patricia O’Brien, a Pacific islands expert at Washington’s Georgetown University, said: “It sounds a lot, but when it’s divided up across so many government areas, nations and territories it doesn’t look so substantial,” she said.
Washington also plans to begin talks soon with Papua New Guinea on a defense cooperation agreement, the fact sheet said.
It has agreed too to provide $2.8 million to step up FBI training with Pacific islands, including in 2022 with the Solomon Islands, which drew scrutiny earlier this year for signing a security deal with China.
That deal included provisions for Chinese police to help maintain social order and fueled concerns among the United States and its allies of Chinese militarization of the region.
An unsigned draft of a summit declaration seen by Reuters said the leaders resolved to strengthen their partnership and shared a vision for the region where “democracy will be able to flourish.”
It also said Washington remained committed to addressing the Marshall Islands’ environmental and health concerns, without specifically linking them to massive U.S. nuclear testing there in the 1940s and ’50s. It did though say generally that “We, too, acknowledge the nuclear legacy of the Cold War.”
Sources told Reuters the State Department had objected to an explicit reference to the Marshall Islands nuclear issue when negotiating the declaration earlier in the week.
It remains a sticking point in talks with the Marshall Islands to renew economic assistance to the country which houses crucial U.S. military facilities, though Washington has committed to trying to reach a deal by year-end.
The U.S. strategy document said the region faced challenges to sovereignty and added that the United States would help ensure Pacific governments and people “have the autonomy and security to advance their own interests.”
As part of the plan, the United States would increase its regional diplomatic and defense presence, help counter marine pollution, illegal fishing, drug trafficking, and with seaport security, collaborate with partners on submarine cable upgrades, and promote “secure and trusted” telecommunications partnerships.
Washington this year vowed to open three new embassies in the region – in Kiribati, Tonga, and the Solomon Islands.
Derek Grossman, an Indo-Pacific analyst at the RAND Corporation, said Washington had let ties with the region languish for decades, but the summit showed this had changed.
“We are still all working from, generally speaking, the same sheet of music, which is we don’t want the Chinese establishing a military foothold in the region, and we don’t want them corrupting the institutions of the region,” he said.