US closer to Pacific Islands partnership, pledges new assistance

The United States says it has reached a “common vision” for partnership with Pacific island nations, including new pledges of US assistance, as concern grows about China’s growing influence in the region.

On Wednesday, the United States began its first-ever in-person summit with leaders from nearly a dozen island nations spanning vast swathes of the Pacific Ocean.

US President Joe Biden will deliver remarks to Pacific Island leaders at the State Department on Thursday, then host a dinner at the White House.

“We have gathered around the Declaration of the US-Pacific Partnership,” US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said as he presented a document during Wednesday’s working lunch with Pacific leaders at the State Department.

But the final language of the 11-point joint declaration is still being worked out.

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, left, greets dignitaries from the Pacific Island nations during the US Pacific Island Nations Summit at the State Department in Washington on September 28, 2022.

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, left, greets dignitaries from the Pacific Island nations during the US Pacific Island Nations Summit at the State Department in Washington on September 28, 2022.

Solomon Islands has sent a diplomatic note to the Pacific Islands Regional Forum announcing that it will not sign the declaration during the high-level meeting.

The declaration, drafted after several weeks of negotiations between Pacific island nations and Biden administration officials, covers issues such as practicing sustainable development, tackling climate change, and maintaining Pacific security and trade.

But the note from Solomon Islands says the government and parliament need more time to study the declaration. A senior administration official said Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavari is in Washington, however, he is taking part in the summit.

Blinken announced Wednesday that the United States will contribute $4.8 million to a new program called Resilient Blue Economies that will boost marine livelihoods in Pacific islands by supporting fisheries, aquaculture and sustainable tourism.

“Pacific islanders in general are more interested in the talks than in the immediate outcome of the summit,” said Brian Harding, a senior expert on Southeast Asia at the United States Institute of Peace.

“Some leaders understandably saw the joint declaration being expedited and are ultimately looking to see whether the United States will follow through on its commitments and be consistent with its engagement going forward,” Harding told VOA on Wednesday.

Other experts said this week’s summit addresses what some see as Washington’s lack of interest in Pacific island nations.

A senior Biden administration official said that during the summit, the White House would release “a specific strategy for the Pacific region for the first time.” The United States also plans to expand its diplomatic missions from six to nine across the Pacific.

“This is part of our effort to strengthen U.S. relations with a part of the world that has been somewhat neglected of late, frankly,” said Chris Johnston, a senior advisor at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“These are important countries, a lot of resources, including in fisheries, and a part of the world where there is growing concern about Chinese influence and that of the People’s Republic of China,” Johnston told VOA, adding that China is seeking military ties with some of them.

On Wednesday, Blinken hosted leaders and senior officials for a lunch. US Climate Envoy John Kerry hosted a session to discuss Pacific Island nations’ priorities that include climate action and the transition to clean energy.

Pacific Island leaders were invited Wednesday evening to US Coast Guard headquarters for a dinner discussion on opportunities to enhance maritime security and counter illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

The Solomon Islands’ refusal to sign the declaration comes just five months after it signed a security agreement with China, sparking fears in the United States and Australia that Beijing would establish a military presence on the islands less than 2,000 kilometers from Australia.

The draft agreement that appeared on social media included a clause that could allow Beijing to send armed police and soldiers to the Solomon Islands, as well as set up its naval vessels off the island nation’s coast.

Prime Minister Sugavari insisted he would not allow the establishment of a Chinese military base, saying the deal would instead help provide internal security.

An American delegation sent to Honiara failed to dissuade Sugavari from signing the security agreement with China.

Earlier this month, the Marshall Islands suspended talks with US officials about renewing the strategic partnership between the two countries, in protest of what it sees as the US failure to address the health and environmental impacts of US nuclear testing in the region during the 1940s and 1950s.

“The issues of nuclear legacy are a major sticking point in a very close relationship,” Harding said.

Vice President Kamala Harris told the Pacific Islands Forum in July that the United States plans to appoint an envoy to the forum and open new embassies in Tonga and Kiribati as part of a pledge that the United States will increase its diplomatic and financial support to the Pacific region. She also announced that the administration is requesting $60 million annually from the US Congress that would triple existing funding to assist fisheries, marine conservation and climate adaptation projects in the region.

Some information for this report came from Reuters.

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