The US prioritizes the Pacific islands in the fight with China

The United States on Thursday, on the second day of a historic summit with leaders from the region, unveiled its first strategy for relations with the Pacific island nations, pledging to help them fight climate change and the “economic coercion” of China.

As President Joe Biden prepared to meet with more than a dozen leaders and representatives from Pacific Island nations in Washington, the strategy paper said his administration views greater engagement with their countries as a priority in American foreign policy.

“America’s prosperity and security depend on the Pacific region remaining free and open,” the document said, noting that Pacific island nations face pressing challenges, particularly from the climate crisis but also heightened geopolitical tensions.

“These tensions include increasing pressure and economic coercion from the People’s Republic of China, which threatens to undermine the peace, prosperity and security of the region, and by extension the United States,” the statement said.

Leaders and representatives from 14 Pacific Island nations are participating in the summit. They will be honored in Washington and on Thursday there will be lunch in the US Congress, a meeting with Biden and dinner at the White House.

Biden’s administration has pledged “a lot of money” to help island nations tackle climate, health and maritime security issues, such as illegal fishing, and to improve communications links with US partners such as Japan, Australia and India.

A senior official said one of the summit’s key outcomes is that the United States will invest more than $810 million in comprehensive aid programs for the islands, on top of the more than $1.5 billion given over the past decade.

The official also said Biden would name career diplomat Frankie Reed as the first U.S. envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum.

The Washington Post previously reported that all visiting leaders had signed an 11-point vision statement committing to joint efforts, and a US official told Reuters that was correct.

According to an unsigned draft of that statement seen by Reuters, the leaders decided to strengthen their partnership and shared a vision for a region where “democracy will be able to flourish”.

The summit is the first time the United States has hosted so many leaders from a region it has considered its maritime backyard since World War II, but where China is making steady progress.

Some of the countries have complained that they are in the middle of a power struggle for influence.

According to the US strategy paper, the US will work with Pacific Islanders to help them adapt and deal with the climate crisis, an “existential threat” to their lives, health and livelihoods.

The Biden-Harris administration will work with the governments and peoples of the Pacific to ensure they have the autonomy and security to pursue their own interests.

As part of the plan, the US will increase its diplomatic and defense presence in the region, seek to help combat marine pollution, illegal fishing, drug trafficking and port security, work with partners to improve submarine cables and provide “secure and trust-building” telecommunications partnerships.

“This will require a significant increase in the overall US diplomatic presence and involvement in the region through new embassies, additional personnel from across the US government, and increased US Coast Guard and Defense involvement,” the strategy states.

This includes returning US Peace Corps volunteers to Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu this year and exploring missions in other countries, the strategy said.

The US also committed to increased trade and investment with the Pacific Islands and said it would support democracy, human rights and good governance, including through capacity building in the private sector, media, academia and civil society.

Washington promised to open three new embassies in the region this year – in Kiribati, Tonga and the Solomon Islands.

Strategic competition in the Pacific has increased dramatically this year after China signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands, sparking warnings of militarization of the region.

Derek Grossman, an Indo-Pacific analyst at the RAND Corporation, said Washington had loosened ties with the region for decades, but that had changed in recent years, and the summit was a sign of that.

“We’re generally still working with the same music, which is that we don’t want the Chinese to get a military foothold in the region and corrupt the institutions in the region,” he said. (Reporting by Michael Martina and David Brunnstrom. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

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