© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on gun crime and his “Safer America Plan” during an event in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, U.S., August 30, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo
By David Brunnstrom, Alexandra Alper and Michael Martina
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States will announce “big dollar” assistance to Pacific island nations when President Joe Biden hosts a first-of-its-kind summit with their leaders on Wednesday, a gathering Washington hopes will help counter China’s expanding influence in a new theater of geopolitical competition.
Leaders from 12 Pacific island states are expected to take part in a two-day summit in Washington, with two more sending representatives, and Australia and New Zealand attending as observers.
White House Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell said last week the summit would focus on addressing issues such as climate change and health and that Washington and its allies were focused on boosting maritime security and island states’ communications links with countries like Japan, Australia and India.
It will be the first time the United States has hosted so many leaders of a region it has considered it maritime backyard since World War Two, but into which China has been making steady advances. Some of the nations have complained about being caught in the middle of the superpowers’ battle for influence.
The leaders will be feted all around Washington, including at the State Department, the U.S. Congress, Coast Guard headquarters, by business leaders, and at the White House. On Wednesday, Washington also will unveil a detailed new strategy specifically for the Pacific, a senior Biden administration official said.
The official acknowledged that Washington had not paid the Pacific enough attention over the years and had been working closely with allied and partner countries “to add more resources, more capacity, more diplomatic engagement.”
“We will have big dollar numbers,” he said, adding that these would be announced on Wednesday.
“We have sought to align our strategy to meet their goals and objectives,” he said referring the 2050 Blue Pacific Continent strategy Pacific leaders have announced that prioritizes action on climate change.
Wednesday’s talks will include a lunch hosted by U.S. climate czar John Kerry.
Strategic competition in the Pacific intensified dramatically this year after China signed a security agreement with the Solomons, prompting warnings of a militarization of the region.
The Solomon Islands has told nations invited to the summit it will not sign the summit declaration under discussion, according to a note seen by Reuters, prompting further concern over the nation’s ties to China.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Damukana Sogavare has repeatedly appeared to snub the United States, heightening Washington’s concerns.
The U.S. official said his expectation was that Sogavare would participate in the summit and that the Solomons had been “actively engaged and seem pleased with the program and what we’ve laid out and what we’d like to accomplish.”
The official said Washington planned to expand the number of its diplomatic missions in the Pacific from six to nine, to deploy additional personnel across the region, and to re-establish a USAID mission in Fiji.
He said Washington had been “working towards” a joint summit statement “about a larger vision in which that states and Pacific island nations sign up to some joint endeavors which are important.”
Another U.S. official said the United States would support island states by increasing its Coast Guard and Defense Department presence and coordinating security cooperation and training with “like-minded partners.” Peace Corps volunteers would also return to Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu this year.
A source familiar with the discussions said the White House was working with the private sector to roll out an agreement on undersea cables for the region, calling it “a reaction to China’s diplomacy and military expansion.”
The Pacific countries are keen for greater connectivity amongst themselves and with allies, however they have repeatedly stressed that Washington should accept their priorities, making climate change – not superpower competition – the most urgent security task.
The second U.S. official said leaders from the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Samoa, Tuvalu, Tonga, Fiji, Cook Islands, French Polynesia and New Caledonia would attend, with Vanuatu and Nauru sending representatives.
Micronesian President David Panuelo said on Tuesday participants had been working on a summit declaration – “a vision statement” – that would cover five themes, including human-centered development, tackling climate change, geopolitics and security of the Pacific region and more broadly, as well as commerce and industry and trade ties.
However, efforts to reach a final text ran into problems this week when during a call with Pacific islands ambassadors, the U.S. State Department demanded the removal of language agreed to by the island countries that the United States address the Marshall Islands nuclear issue, three sources, including a Pacific island diplomat, told Reuters.
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Speaking at Georgetown University, Panuelo said: “In any negotiation, there are red lines and then there are things you give and take and you’ll reach some common ground.”
“Every country will have to do what’s in their best interests, but we call on the superpowers when they come in and talk to the Pacific Islands countries that they keep with us on the terms of the issues that are most important for our region.”