US on track to open new Tonga embassy this month

The US has been deepening engagement in the Pacific region amid concerns about China’s influence.

US President Joe Biden with Pacific leaders outside the White House. The flags of each country are hanging from poles behind the group
The US is taking new initiatives to further ties with Pacific island nations [File: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

The United States is on track to open a new embassy in Tonga this month, according to the top US diplomat for East Asia, as it steps up its diplomatic presence in the Pacific region to counter China.

Daniel Kritenbrink told a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the US was also continuing to engage with Vanuatu and Kiribati about its proposal to open embassies in each of those countries.

The State Department said in March it plans to open an embassy in Vanuatu. The US has diplomatic relations with the South Pacific island nation, which are currently handled by US diplomats based in Papua New Guinea.

The US reopened its embassy in the Solomon Islands in February after a 30-year absence.

Washington announced its intention to reopen the diplomatic mission after it emerged in April 2022 that the Solomon Islands had agreed to a secret security pact with China. In 2019, the Solomon Islands switched diplomatic ties to Beijing from self-ruled Taiwan, which China claims as its own, a move swiftly followed by Kiribati.

Washington has also been working to renew agreements with the Marshall Islands, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia under which it retains responsibility for the islands’ defence and gains exclusive access to huge swathes of the Pacific.

Last September, US President Joe Biden invited Pacific leaders to the White House for a first-of-its-kind regional summit with a US president.

At the end of the two-day summit, the 14 Pacific island nations signed the Declaration on US-Pacific Partnership, promising to work together to ensure a peaceful region where “democracy is allowed to flourish” and making climate change the “highest priority”.

The Biden administration is seeking $7.1bn from Congress over the next 20 years for economic assistance to the three countries, funds seen as key to insulating them from growing Chinese influence in the region.

The US is also planning a possible Biden stop in Papua New Guinea on May 22 as part of a stepped-up engagement with the Pacific islands.

Source: Al Jazeera, Reuters