WASHINGTON: The United States released its first strategy for ties with Pacific island nations on Thursday (Sep 29), the second day of a summit with leaders from the region, pledging to help them fight climate change and rebuff what it called China’s “economic coercion”.
As President Joe Biden prepared to meet more than a dozen leaders and representatives in Washington, the strategy paper said his administration was making engaging more deeply with their countries a foreign policy priority.
“US prosperity and security depend on the Pacific region remaining free and open,” it said, noting that Pacific island countries faced urgent challenges, most notably from the climate crisis, but also heightened geopolitical tensions.
“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.
Leaders and representatives from 14 Pacific island states are taking part. Their itinerary includes lunch at Congress, an afternoon meeting with Biden and a White House dinner.
Biden’s administration has pledged “big-dollar” assistance to address climate, health and maritime security issues, and to boost communications links with US partners like Japan, Australia and India.
A senior administration official said the United States would invest more than US$810 million in expanded programs to aid the islands, on top of over US$1.5 billion provided in the past decade.
That figure included a previously announced 10-year US$600 million economic assistance agreement request to Congress to build climate resilience and maritime security for the island states, according to an administration 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 defence cooperation agreement, the White House fact sheet said.
It had agreed too to provide US$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 militarisation 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 the United States remained committed to addressing the Marshall Islands’ environmental and health concerns, without specifically linking them to massive US 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 earlier that the State Department had objected to explicit reference to the Marshall Islands nuclear issue when negotiating the declaration with island countries earlier in the week.
It remains a sticking point in ongoing US talks with the Marshall Islands to renew economic assistance to the country which houses crucial US military facilities, though Washington has committed to trying to reach a deal by year-end.