US vows to address Pacific island needs as China clout grows

  • 29 Sep 2022

President Biden announces $810 million in funding for the Pacific Islands at a rare summit in Washington and pledged to assist the region's pressing issues like climate crisis, maritime security and overfishing.

Biden also designates a veteran US ambassador in the region, Frankie Reed, as the first-ever US envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum. ( AP )

US President Joe Biden has announced $810 million in new funding for Pacific Islands at a first-of-a-kind summit with their leaders in Washington, vowing a closer partnership with a strategic but sparsely populated region where China also holds sway. 

Addressing leaders of South Pacific states including 12 heads of state or government on Thursday, Biden said he wanted to show an "enduring commitment," adding, "The security of America, quite frankly, and the world depends on your security."

Alluding to China's rise in Asia, Biden said, "A great deal of the history of our world is going to be written in the Indo-Pacific over the coming years and decades, and the Pacific Islands are a critical voice in shaping that future."

The United States has been the key player in the South Pacific since its World War II victory. China has also asserted itself strongly through investment, police training, and a security pact with the Solomon Islands.

Among US pledges at the summit was $20 million for the Solomon Islands to develop tourism. The four-year US programme will focus on empowering women and finding alternatives to logging.

Leaders from Fiji, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, the Cook Islands, French Polynesia and New Caledonia are attending the two-day summit that Secretary of State Antony Blinken kicked off on Wednesday. 

READ MORE: US courts Pacific Island leaders in rare summit amid China rivalry

'Existential threat'

The bulk of the new funding, at $600 million, will be in the form of a 10-year package across the South Pacific to clean up and develop dirty waters to support the tuna industry.

The United States will also step up support to adapt to climate crisis, with Biden telling the leaders, "It's an existential threat."

“We’re seeing the consequences of climate change around the world very vividly, including in the United States right now, and I know your nations feel it acutely,” Biden said.

Of the $810 million aid, $130 million will be for stemming climate impacts.

Launching a new strategy for engagement, Biden also designated a veteran US ambassador in the region, Frankie Reed, as the first-ever US envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum.

The United States earlier announced the restoration of an embassy in the Solomon Islands and the White House said on Thursday that US embassies would also open in Tonga and Kiribati.

The US Agency for International Development will open a Pacific regional mission in Fiji by September 2023 and Peace Corps volunteers will return to Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu and possibly the Solomon Islands, the White House said.

Summit declaration
Later on Thursday, US and Pacific island nations vowed to strengthen their partnership in a declaration.

"Pacific leaders welcome the United States' commitment to enhancing its engagement, including by expanding its diplomatic presence, the ties between our peoples, and U.S. development cooperation across the region," the declaration, released by the White House, said.

READ MORE: Biden to host Pacific Island leaders with eyes on China

Solomons concerns

While many Pacific leaders have welcomed US engagement, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has warned against competition among major powers.

Speaking to the AFP news agency, Sogavare said that negotiations in Washington on a partnership declaration addressed his concerns "in a positive way."

"We had specific issues on certain regional organisations such as ASEAN and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue being included as no consultations with them have happened with Pacific small island developing states," Sogavare said, referring to the Southeast Asian bloc and the four-way Quad of the United States, Australia, Japan and India.

Western officials and analysts allege that Beijing will use the Solomon Islands as a base to expand militarily into the Pacific or to pressure Taiwan.

Sogavare has denied plans for a Chinese base and Beijing has said that its growing activity in the South Pacific "does not target any third party."

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