The President of the United States, Joe Biden will this week announce the opening of new embassies on the Cook Islands and Niue as part of a charm offensive to block Chinese inroads into the South Pacific.
Biden made the statement on Sunday as he got ready to welcome the leaders of the Pacific Islands to Washington, DC, for a two-day summit of the US-Pacific Island Forum.
The influence of climate change in the area is anticipated to dominate discussions.
In light of growing US concerns over China’s expanding military and economic dominance, Biden has placed a high priority on enhancing partnerships in the Pacific. Prior to the official announcement, two senior administration officials who briefed reporters on the embassies’ plans confirmed them.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden would use the summit to strengthen “ties with the Pacific Islands and discuss how we address complex global challenges, like tackling the existential threat of climate change, advancing economic growth, and promoting sustainable development”.
The leaders were scheduled to be feted on Sunday at a Baltimore Ravens football game and to visit a Coast Guard cutter in Baltimore Harbor for a briefing by the commandant of the US Coast Guard on combatting illegal fishing and other maritime issues.
Pacific Island leaders have been critical of rich countries for not doing enough to control climate change despite being responsible for much of the problem, and for profiting from loans provided to vulnerable nations to mitigate the effects.
At last year’s summit, the White House unveiled its Pacific strategy, an outline of its plan to assist the region’s leaders on pressing issues like climate change, maritime security and protecting the region from overfishing. It pledged the US would add $810m in new aid for Pacific Island nations over the next decade, including $130m on efforts to stymie the impacts of climate change.
Meg Keen, director of Pacific Island Programs at Australia’s Lowy Institute, said that while the US had opened new embassies and USAID offices in the region since last year’s summit, Congress had yet to approve the funds.
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”.
The Pacific Island forum includes Australia, the Cook Islands, Micronesia, Fiji, French Polynesia, Kiribati, Nauru, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.
The White House said most members of the 18-member forum were dispatching their top elected official or foreign minister to the summit.