The US will provide an additional $810m in support to Pacific island countries and recognise Niue and Cook Islands as sovereign states, as part of the country’s push to step up engagement with the region in the wake of China’s growing presence in the Pacific.
President Joe Biden announced the raft of measures on Thursday, at the first US-Pacific Summit in Washington, which saw leaders from more than a dozen Pacific island countries visit the US.
Biden told leaders that the US was committed to bolstering its presence in the Pacific, particularly as the region faces the “existential threat” of climate change. As part of the $810m in new aid over the next decade, $130m will be spent on efforts to combat the effects of the climate crisis.
The White House unveiled its Pacific strategy, outlining its plan to assist the Pacific on issues such as climate change, maritime security and protecting the area from overfishing.
“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 said at the start of a meeting with island leaders at the State Department.
“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.”
The summit comes as China’s influence in the Pacific has grown. Earlier this year, Solomon Islands signed a controversial security pact with Beijing.
After indicating it would not adopt the declaration issued by the US and Pacific countries at the conclusion of the summit, Solomon Islands’ prime minister Manasseh Sogavare joined other Pacific countries in signing the agreement.
The US has been criticised for being largely absent as a partner for the Pacific in recent decades, with White House officials acknowledging that US inattentiveness toward the region since the end of the cold war has left an opening for Beijing to exert its influence.
The Pacific strategy document issued by the US warns of the “heightened geopolitical competition impacts” for the Pacific Island countries, making specific reference to China.
“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 US engagement across the full Pacific Islands region.”
Leaders from Fiji, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, the Cook Islands, French Polynesia and New Caledonia have been in Washington for a two-day summit this week.
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 on Thursday evening at the White House.
The administration said it would also establish a regional mission of the US agency for international development in Fiji’s capital of Suva and reiterated plans to open embassies in the Solomon Islands, Tonga and Kiribati, and to bring Peace Corp volunteers back to some Pacific countries.
The White House also announced plans to recognise the Cook Islands and Niue as sovereign states, after “appropriate consultations”. The US currently recognises the islands as self-governing territories. The move would see both states eligible for some of the new funding announced by the US.
Associated Press contributed to this report.