The United States says it has agreed on a partnership with the Pacific Islands that offers the prospect of “big dollar” help to a region where China has been expanding its influence.
US President Joe Biden is hosting leaders and representatives from 14 island nations for a two-day summit at the White House, as the country steps up engagement in the region.
The Washington Post quoted US officials as saying the Biden administration would announce it would invest more than $860m in expanded programmes to aid the islands, on top of more than $1.5bn provided over the past decade.
It added that all visiting leaders, including Solomon Islands’ President Manasseh Sogavare, had agreed to the 11-point statement. Reports on Wednesday suggested that Sogavare, who has moved closer to China in recent months, was not prepared to sign.
The White House had no immediate comment on the funding figure, but a US official told the Reuters news agency that the report was accurate.
The US is courting the Pacific island nations at a time when Beijing has been increasingly active in the region, offering new investment and, in the case of the Solomon Islands, a security pact. Some of the leaders are wary about China, but also that they will be caught in the middle of the two superpowers.
An official who briefed journalists ahead of the meeting acknowledged Washington had not paid sufficient attention to the Pacific and would come up with new initiatives with “big-dollar numbers”.
Among the measures, the US plans to expand its diplomatic footprint in the region — opening three new missions and creating a new ambassador’s post to the Pacific Islands Forum, the key regional body. It also plans to re-establish a US Agency for International Development mission in Fiji.
The leaders are being feted around Washington, DC, and on Thursday will have lunch at the US Congress and dinner with the president at the White House.
Speaking to the leaders of the Pacific Islands before the summit got underway, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said they had “come together around a declaration of partnership between the US and the Pacific,” which would provide a “roadmap” for their future relationship.
Holding up a document, he said it showed the US and the Pacific Islands have a “shared vision for the future and a determination to build that future together”.
Blinken said the shared vision “recognizes that only by working together can we actually tackle the biggest challenges of our time, that confront all of our citizens.”
He cited the climate crisis, health emergencies, promoting economic opportunity, and preserving a “free and open Indo-Pacific” where every nation regardless of size “has the right to choose its own path”.
Strategic competition in the Pacific Islands intensified dramatically this year after China signed the security agreement with the Solomons. The Pacific island nation switched formal diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing in 2019 in a move that has also deepened domestic divisions.
For Pacific leaders, climate change is a crucial issue and the talks in Washington, DC, included a session hosted by John Kerry, the special presidential envoy for climate.
Kerry praised regional leaders for a more ambitious global climate target than agreed at the 2015 Paris climate summit.
“It really came from your persistence and commitment, so I want to thank you for that. It made a difference to the world,” he said.
A source familiar with the discussions told Reuters that an agreement on undersea cables was also likely.