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US announces $810 mn in new funding for Pacific Islands at summit

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken hosts a working lunch with Pacific Island countries during a Washington summit on September 28, 2022. ©AFP

Washington (AFP) - The United States on Thursday announced $810 million in new funding for Pacific Islands at a summit with President Joe Biden amid inroads by China in the strategic but sparsely populated region.

The White House said $600 million will be in the form of a 10-year package to clean up and develop dirty waters to support the tuna industry, while the United States will also expand climate and development aid and its diplomatic presence.

Biden later Thursday will address the first-ever Washington summit of Pacific Island nations, including 12 heads of state or government, in hopes of using a personal touch to reconnect with a region that has been tied closely to the United States since World War II.

With the United States until now often seen as taking the region for granted, China has asserted itself strongly in recent years through investment, police training and, most controversially, a security pact with the Solomon Islands.

The Biden administration also 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 Island 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, amid the heavy presence of China, 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 and told the United Nations last week he was being "vilified" for a security pact with China.

Speaking to AFP, Sogavare said that negotiations in Washington had addressed his concerns "in a positive way" ahead of the expected unveiling of a partnership declaration with the United States.

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

The United States, while not ruling out diplomacy, has said it has not seen any seriousness by Russia in a negotiated settlement and on Wednesday approved another $1.1 billion package of arms to Ukraine including critical rocket systems.

Australia's ABC earlier reported that the Solomon Islands were holding up the joint declaration, although Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke of an agreement as he welcomed the leaders to lunch.

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 influence in the South Pacific "does not target any third party."

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