US recognises Cook Islands, Niue as Biden hosts Pacific Island leaders

US president is hosting Pacific Island leaders for two-day summit amid intensifying competition with China in the region.

US President Joe Biden
'The history and the future of the Pacific Islands and the United States are inextricably linked,' US President Joe Biden says [File: Leah Millis/Reuters]

The United States has recognised the Cook Islands and Niue as “sovereign and independent” states and pledged to open diplomatic relations, as US President Joe Biden bolsters ties to Pacific Island nations as part of a push to counter growing Chinese influence.

In a statement on Monday, Biden said “the history and the future of the Pacific Islands and the United States are inextricably linked”.

“The United States’ recognition of the Cook Islands, and the establishment of diplomatic relations will not only strengthen the ties between our nations, it will help ensure that our shared future is more secure, more prosperous, and more free — for our people and people around the world.”

The US president is hosting the leaders of Pacific Island nations for two days of discussions in Washington, DC, this week.

The US-Pacific Island Forum Summit is expected to focus heavily on the effects of the climate crisis, as well as economic growth, sustainable development and public health.

“I want you to know I hear you. The people of the United States and around the world hear you. We hear your warnings of a rising sea,” Biden said during a news conference at the start of the discussions at the White House on Monday morning.

“We hear your calls for reassurance that you will never, never, never will lose your statehood or membership at the UN as a result of a climate crisis. Today, the United States is making it clear that this is our position, as well.”

The talks also come amid intensifying competition between Washington and Beijing.

Ties between the two countries have soured in recent years over a range of issues, from trade and the status of Taiwan to China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea and the US push against growing Chinese economic and military influence in the Indo-Pacific.

But senior members of Biden’s administration have said they are seeking to manage those tensions and are not looking for confrontation with China.

Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett, reporting from the US capital on Monday, said the Pacific Island summit is “the second meeting of its kind” and announcements on infrastructure projects and funding for maritime cooperation are expected, among other things.

“What the United States is looking to do now is really to work with these regions and to essentially get them onside when it comes to economic activity in exchange for also providing some security guarantees,” said Halkett.

The forum includes Australia, the Cook Islands, Micronesia, Fiji, French Polynesia, Kiribati, Nauru, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.

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.

The administration pledged to add $810m in new aid for Pacific Island nations over the next decade, including $130m on efforts to stymie the impacts of climate change.

Biden welcomed the leaders to the White House on Monday morning for talks and a working lunch.

He told reporters that his administration aims to increase climate assistance and is working with Congress to invest $40bn for its Pacific Islands infrastructure initiative.

“The United States [is] committed to ensuring the Indo-Pacific region … is free, open, prosperous and secure. We’re committed to working with all the nations around this table to achieve that goal,” Biden said.

The leaders also will meet with Biden’s special envoy on climate, John Kerry, for talks focused on climate change while Secretary of State Antony Blinken and UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield will later host them at the US Department of State for a dinner.

Kerry and Samantha Power, administrator of the US Agency for International Development, will host the leaders on Tuesday for climate talks with members of the philanthropic community. The leaders also plan to meet with members of Congress.

In addition, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen will host a round table with the leaders and members of the business community.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies