Biden makes new pledges to Pacific island leaders


President Joe Biden met Pacific island leaders for a second White House summit in just over a year on Monday, part of a charm offensive aimed at curbing further inroads by China into a strategic region Washington has long considered its own backyard.

US President Joe Biden, right, stands with Prime Minister of the Cook Islands Mark Brown, middle, and Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea James Marape as they participate in a group photo with other leaders at the Pacific Islands Forum as part of the US-Pacific Islands Forum Summit at the White House on September 25, 2023 in Washington. Photo: Win McNamee

Before welcoming the Pacific Islands Forum leaders, Biden announced US diplomatic recognition of two more Pacific islands nations, the Cook Islands and Niue.

“The United States is committed to ensuring an Indo-Pacific region that is free, open, prosperous, and secure. We’re committed to working with all the nations around this table to achieve that goal,” Biden said at the welcoming ceremony.

Biden pledged to work with Congress to provide $US200 million more in funding for the region for projects aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change, spurring economic growth, countering illegal fishing and improving public health, the US said in a document issued after a working lunch with the group.

“These new programs and activities continue to demonstrate the US commitment to work together with the Pacific Islands to expand and deepen our cooperation in the years ahead,” the document said.

A joint statement said the sides agreed to hold another summit in 2025 and political engagements every two years thereafter.

Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown and Forum chair called the summit “an opportunity … to develop our partnerships for prosperity.”

He urged Washington “to actively engage at the highest level” in the 52nd PIF leaders meeting he would host in a few weeks to endorse its 2050 Strategy.

US wants to help island nations fend off China

Biden hosted an inaugural summit of 14 Pacific island nations a year ago and was to meet them again in Papua New Guinea in May. That meeting was scrapped when a US debt- ceiling crisis forced Biden to cut short an Asia trip.

Last year, his administration pledged to help islanders fend off China’s “economic coercion” and a joint declaration resolved to strengthen their partnership, saying they shared a vision for a region where “democracy will be able to flourish.”

Biden said recognising the Cook Islands and Niue as sovereign and independent states would “enable us to expand the scope of this enduring partnership as we seek to tackle the challenges that matter most to our peoples’ lives.”

He highlighted a personal link to the region – an uncle killed in World War Two after crash landing off the coast of Papua New Guinea. He said the summit, as then, was “to build a better world.”

In Baltimore on Sunday, Pacific island leaders visited a Coast Guard cutter in the harbor and were briefed on combating illegal fishing by the Commandant of the Coast Guard.

They also attended Sunday’s National Football League game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Indianapolis Colts. Dozens of NFL players are of Pacific Islander heritage.

Some skip summit

Representatives of all 18 Forum membners attended the summit, but not all at leader level.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who has deepened ties with China, did not attend and a senior Biden administration official said the US was “disappointed” by this.

Washington appears to have made no progress on offers of substantial infrastructure funding and expanded aid to the Solomons. Sogavare visited China in July, announcing a policing agreement with Beijing that builds on a security pact signed last year.

The White House in 2022 said the US would invest more than $810 million in expanded programs to aid the Pacific islands.

Australia’s Lowy Institute Pacific Island Programs director Meg Keen said that while the US had opened new embassies and a USAID office in the region since last year’s summit, Congress had yet to approve most of the funding pledges made last year.

She added that Pacific island countries “welcome the US re-engagement with the region, but don’t want geopolitical tussles to result in an escalation of militarisation.”

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