WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden on Thursday told visiting leaders from more than a dozen Pacific Island countries that the U.S. was committed to bolstering its presence in their region and becoming a more collaborative partner as they face the “existential threat” of climate change.
The president addressed the leaders who gathered in Washington for a summit as the White House looks to improve relations in the Pacific amid growing U.S. concern about China’s growing military and economic influence.
“A great deal of history of our world is going to be written in the Indo-Pacific over the coming years and decades,” Biden said at the start of a meeting with island leaders at the State Department. “And the Pacific Islands are a critical voice in shaping the future, and that’s why my administration has made it a priority to strengthen our partnership with your countries.”
Biden delivered his remarks as his administration unveiled its Pacific strategy, an outline of the White House's plan to assist the region's leaders on pressing issues like climate change, maritime security and protecting the area from overfishing. The administration also pledged that the U.S. would add $810 million in new aid for Pacific Island nations over the next decade, including $130 million on efforts to stymie the impacts of climate change.
“We’re seeing the consequences of climate change around the world very vividly, including in the United States right now, and I know your nations feel it acutely,” Biden said.
Leaders from Fiji, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, the Cook Islands, French Polynesia and New Caledonia are attending the two-day summit that Secretary of State Antony Blinken kicked off Wednesday. Vanuatu and Nauru sent representatives, and Australia, New Zealand and the secretary-general of the Pacific Island Forum sent observers, according to the White House. The president hosted leaders for a dinner Thursday evening at the White House.
The summit comes amid worrying signs to the U.S. that Beijing has grown its influence in the region. Earlier this year, the Solomon Islands signed a new security pact with Beijing, and ahead of the summit signaled it would be hesitant to sign any end-of-summit statement critical of China.
The Marshall Islands this month suspended talks to renew its security partnership with the U.S., citing the longstanding impact of U.S. nuclear testing in the area some 70 years ago.
A joint declaration issued at the end of the summit included a nod to those concerns. It stated that the U.S. was "committed to addressing the Republic of the Marshall Islands’ ongoing environmental, public health concerns, and other welfare concerns” and “to the safe removal and disposal of unexploded ordnance.”
Among the new initiatives the White House announced are plans to ask Congress to appropriate $600 million over 10 years to support economic development, promote climate resilience efforts for Pacific fisheries and more. The administration says it will also establish a regional mission of the U.S. Agency for International Development in Suva, Fiji. The White House also reiterated previously announced plans to open embassies in the Solomon Islands, Tonga and Kiribati.
The White House also announced plans to recognize the Cook Islands and Niue as sovereign states, after "appropriate consultations." The U.S. currently recognizes the islands as self-governing territories.
Meg Keen, the director of the Pacific Islands program for the Australia-based Lowy Institute, said the recognition means the Cook Islands and Niue would be eligible for some of the U.S. funding announced by Biden on Thursday.
The 16-page document notes “heightened geopolitical competition impacts” for the Pacific Island countries that also directly affect the United States.
“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,” the strategy document says. "These challenges demand renewed U.S. engagement across the full Pacific Islands region."
Among the broad strategy aims laid out by the Biden administration in the document are expanding the number of U.S. diplomatic missions from six to nine across the Pacific and completing work to renew strategic partnership agreements with the Pacific Island nations of Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands that are set to soon expire. The strategy also calls for increasing the presence in the region of the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Pentagon.
White House officials acknowledge that U.S. inattentiveness toward the region since the end of the Cold War has left an opening for Beijing to exert its influence.
Plans for the summit were announced earlier this month, just days after the Solomon Islands called on the U.S. and Britain not to send naval vessels to the South Pacific nation until approval processes are overhauled. The Solomons in April signed a new security pact with China.
Ahead of the summit, the Solomon Islands signaled it was unlikely to sign on to an end-of-summit joint statement, according to a diplomat familiar with summit planning. The diplomat, who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the resistance was driven in part by the Solomon Islands’ tightening relationship with Beijing.
But in the end, the Solomon Islands signed on to the joint declaration. The statement instead included calls for bolstering the Pacific economy, tackling climate change, maintaining peace and security across the Pacific, and more, but avoided any direct mention of China.
Besides their meeting with Biden, island leaders met Thursday with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Associated Press writers Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand, and Kevin Freking in Washington contributed to this report.