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Biden ramps up aid in Pacific Islands summit as China clout grows

US President Joe Biden welcomes Pacific Island leaders to the State Department with Secretary of State Antony Blinken at his side. ©AFP

Washington (AFP) - US President Joe Biden on Thursday announced $810 million in new funding for Pacific Islands at a first-of-a-kind summit with their leaders in Washington, vowing a closer partnership with a strategic but sparsely populated region where China is making inroads.

Addressing leaders of South Pacific states including 12 heads of state or government, Biden said he wanted to show an "enduring commitment," adding, "The security of America, quite frankly, and the world depends on your security."

Alluding to China's rise in Asia, Biden said, "A great deal of the history of our world is going to be written in the Indo-Pacific over the coming years and decades, and the Pacific Islands are a critical voice in shaping that future."

The United States has been the key player in the South Pacific since its World War II victory.But with Washington often seen as taking the region for granted, China has asserted itself strongly through investment, police training and, most controversially, a security pact with the Solomon Islands.

Among US pledges at the summit was $20 million for the Solomon Islands to develop tourism.In contrast to China's hands-off mercantilism, the four-year US program will focus on empowering women and finding alternatives to logging.

'Existential' climate threat

The bulk of the new funding, at $600 million, will be in the form of a 10-year package across the South Pacific to clean up and develop dirty waters to support the tuna industry.

The United States will also step up support to adapt to climate change, with Biden telling the leaders, "I know your nations feel it acutely -- for you all, it's an existential threat."

Biden separately announced that the United States would recognize Cook Islands and Niue, a self-governing territory whose foreign and defense policies and currency are linked to New Zealand.

The step will allow the United States to increase its diplomatic footprint in the Cook Islands and Niue, which have fewer than 20,000 inhabitants but constitute a sprawling economic zone in the South Pacific.

Launching a new strategy for engagement, Biden also designated a veteran US ambassador in the region, Frankie Reed, as the first-ever US envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum.

The United States earlier announced the restoration of an embassy in the Solomon Islands and the White House said Thursday that US embassies would also open in Tonga and Kiribati.

The US Agency for International Development will open a Pacific regional mission in Fiji by September 2023 and Peace Corps volunteers will return to Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu and possibly the Solomon Islands, the White House said.

In line with its focus on alliances, the Biden administration recently formed the Partners in the Blue Pacific with Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Britain.

The White House said that Canada and Germany will join and that France -- itself a South Pacific power -- as well as the European Union, South Korea and India would participate as non-members.

Solomon Islands see progress

While many Pacific leaders have welcomed US engagement, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has warned against competition among major powers.

Speaking to AFP, Sogavare said that negotiations in Washington on a partnership declaration addressed his concerns "in a positive way."

"We had specific issues on certain regional organizations such as ASEAN and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue being included as no consultations with them have happened with Pacific small island developing states," Sogavare said, referring to the Southeast Asian bloc and the four-way Quad of the United States, Australia, Japan and India.

Sogavare said his government also sought to insert language on a "cessation of hostilities and a peaceful resolution to the Ukraine war."

The United States says it has not seen any seriousness by Russia on a negotiated settlement and Wednesday approved another $1.1 billion package of arms to Ukraine.

Western officials and analysts fear that Beijing will use the Solomon Islands as a base to expand militarily into the Pacific or to pressure Taiwan, a self-governing democracy claimed by China.

Sogavare has denied plans for a Chinese base and Beijing has said that its growing activity in the South Pacific "does not target any third party."

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