World Politics

Biden to host Pacific Island leaders in U.S. charm offensive against China

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute 46th Annual Gala in Washington, U.S. September 21, 2023. 
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

President Joe Biden will host a second summit with Pacific Island leaders this week, part of a U.S. charm offensive to block further Chinese inroads into a strategic region Washington has long considered its own backyard.

During the three-day meeting, the U.S. will announce diplomatic recognition for two Pacific Islands, promise new money for infrastructure — including improving Internet connectivity via undersea cables — and honor regional leaders at an NFL game.

Biden held an inaugural summit with the islanders at the White House a year ago and was due to meet them again in Papua New Guinea in May. That plan was scrapped when a U.S. debt-ceiling crisis forced Biden to cut short an Asia trip.

At last year's summit with 14 Pacific Island nations, Biden's administration pledged to help islanders fend off China's "economic coercion" and a joint declaration resolved to strengthen their partnership, saying they shared a vision for a region where "democracy will be able to flourish."

The White House said this year's effort would focus on priorities including climate change, economic growth, sustainable development, public health and countering illegal fishing.

The United States will also officially recognize the Cook Islands and another small nation, Niue, for the first time during the summit.

In Baltimore on Sunday, the leaders will see a Coast Guard cutter in the harbor and be briefed on combating illegal fishing by the Commandant of the Coast Guard, an official said.

The leaders will also attend Sunday's football game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Indianapolis Colts. Dozens of NFL players are of Pacific Islander heritage.

Some skip summit

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who has deepened his country's ties with China, will skip the summit. A senior Biden administration official said the U.S. was "disappointed" by Sogavare's decision.

Washington appears to have made no progress on offers of substantial infrastructure funding and expanded aid to the Solomons. Sogavare visited China in July, announcing a policing agreement with Beijing that builds on a security pact signed last year.

The White House in 2022 said the U.S. would invest more than $810 million in expanded programs to aid the Pacific Islands.

Meg Keen, director of Pacific Island Programs at Australia's Lowy Institute, said that while the U.S. 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 U.S. re-engagement with the region, but don't want geopolitical tussles to result in an escalation of militarization."

Vanuatu Prime Minister Sato Kilman will also not attend the summit, his office told Reuters.

Kilman was elected by lawmakers two weeks ago to replace Ishmael Kalsakau, who lost a no-confidence vote for actions including signing a security pact with U.S. ally Australia.

The U.S. is still negotiating to open an embassy in Vanuatu but has not significantly increased its engagement with the nation, which counts China as its largest external creditor. China last month sent police experts to Vanuatu and signed a policing agreement.

A senior Biden administration official said the U.S. was on track to open the Vanuatu embassy by early next year and that other Vanuatu officials would attend the summit.

Fiji has welcomed the stronger U.S. regional presence as making the Pacific "more secure," but Kiribati, one of the most remote Pacific Island states, 2,500 miles (4,000 km) southwest of Hawaii, said this year it plans to upgrade a former World War Two airstrip with Chinese assistance.

Washington renewed agreements this year with Palau and Micronesia that give it exclusive military access to strategic parts of the Pacific but has yet to do so with the Marshall Islands, which wants more money to deal with the legacy of massive U.S. nuclear testing in the 1940s and 50s.

A Biden administration official said it was confident of concluding a deal with the Marshall Islands.