Washington steps up efforts to "significantly deepen" its presence in Pacific region, with VP Kamala Harris announcing a major funding package at a key regional summit.

US will open two new embassies –– in Tonga and Kiribati, says US Vice President Kamala Harris.
US will open two new embassies –– in Tonga and Kiribati, says US Vice President Kamala Harris. (AFP)

US has launched a major push into the Pacific, seeking to challenge China's influence in the region, with Vice President Kamala Harris announcing $600 million in funding at a key regional summit.

Harris also revealed on Wednesday the US will open two new embassies – in Tonga and Kiribati – during an unprecedented address to the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji.

The US will also appoint its first-ever envoy to the Pacific and launch an inaugural national strategy for the region.

The US-China rivalry has brought intense interest to this year's forum, which brings together leaders from across the strategically vital Pacific.

It marks the first time regional leaders have come together since the Solomon Islands signed a security pact with China earlier this year.

READ MORE: US vows more engagement with Pacific islands amid Chinese influence

'New chapter' in Pacific

Harris' video-link address was a diplomatic coup for the US, with China not yet invited to make a similar appearance at the summit.

At least one official from the local Chinese embassy was in the room for Harris' address, causing a minor stir among organisers.

The US vice president thanked Fiji President Voreqe Bainimarama for inviting her to speak at the summit and said the US was ready to "embark on a new chapter" in the Pacific.

Harris said she and US President Joe Biden acknowledged the Pacific may not have previously received enough focus in the past.

"We are going to change that," she promised, adding the US wanted to "significantly deepen our presence in the Pacific region".

READ MORE:Why has the China-Solomon Islands defence deal irked the West?

Alongside a US$60 million pledge for economic assistance to the Forum Fisheries Agency, she said the US would also relaunch the Peace Corps in the Pacific.

She said the US wanted to collaborate on maritime security, disaster relief and infrastructure projects that "do not result in insurmountable debt".

"We are really happy that the US will be opening an embassy in Tonga, it will be the first time," Tongan Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni told the AFP news agency.

"It is a big milestone. We are very happy we are finally having a US presence in Tonga."

READ MORE: China looks for security pact in Pacific Island summit

Source: AFP