Biden administration easing friction at Pacific island summit
Ahead of the summit, which began Wednesday and continues Thursday, this reported dissent threatened to hamper the administration’s efforts to make the meeting a symbol of the unity of the United States and the Pacific island nations. By defusing this discord, the administration can claim victory by building regional support for the United States to counter China’s growing influence in the South Pacific.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday that the leaders of the United States and the Pacific Islands – apparently including those of the Solomon Islands – had sealed « a declaration of partnership between the United States ». Blinken said the statement demonstrated the two parties’ « shared vision for the future. » but did not provide details on specific signatories. But his announcement suggests the administration had been wrangling over last-minute changes to the wording of the document that caused Solomon Islands to initially refuse to sign.
The statement “was not made yesterday,” a senior administration official told POLITICO. « Not only [with] Solomon Islands, but several others…negotiations were not over.
The official also disputed a report that the Marshall Islands had suspended talks with the United States on renewing its strategic partnership to protest the perceived failure of the United States to address the economic, environmental legacies and health of US nuclear weapons testing around the atolls from 1946 to 1958.
“There has never been a break in the COFA talks with the Marshall Islands – we met with their delegation earlier this week and agreed dates for the next talks,” the official said. « So it was only ever the case because of the nuclear issue, or any issue that we or they refused to address, it was never the case. » The official declined to comment on the report claiming the talks were suspended.
Efforts by POLITICO to contact representatives from the Marshall Islands and the Solomon Islands were unsuccessful.
But reports of their initial public refusal marked a humiliating kickoff for the two-day summit and underscore the challenges the Biden administration faces in redeeming US credibility in a region where China is filling the void. created by decades of American disengagement. But the administration is adamant that the two-day summit will bring tangible benefits to Pacific island nations that will underscore the United States’ resolve to be its superpower partner of choice.
“This summit takes time to prepare for and we believe it will be a substantial investment,” another senior administration official said Tuesday. “We will talk specifically about programs and agencies and specific budget numbers.”
Blinken unveiled the first of those numbers on Wednesday, announcing $4.8 million in US funding for the new Resilient Blue Economies initiative to “strengthen marine livelihoods by supporting sustainable fisheries, aquaculture and tourism.” .
Detailed deliverables fueled by generous US funding are essential if the administration is to counter China’s growing influence in the region. For many Pacific Islanders, the most visible symbols of American involvement are the remnants of former World War II battlefields, such as Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. This vacuum of influence has lubricated China’s diplomatic forays over the past two decades in the absence of a competitive American alternative.
The administration is coordinating its summit outreach with its Partners in the Blue Pacific initiative with allies Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom « to add more resources, more capacity, more commitment diplomatic as a whole, » the official said. The summit will also mark the launch of the U.S. government’s first-ever Pacific Strategy, a region-specific complement to the Indo-Pacific Strategy Containing China launched by the administration in September 2021.
« This [strategy] specifically targets the concerns and objectives of the Pacific as a whole… [and] on how to organize the disparate elements of the US government to tackle issues such as climate change, training, issues associated with [over]fishing, investments in technology,” the official said on Tuesday.
Initiatives to address the existential threat that the climate crisis poses to Pacific island countries will command the attention of their leaders. China has helped fuel its diplomatic forays with tailored climate diplomacy aimed at addressing concerns about rising sea levels. China’s special envoy on climate change, Xie Zhenhua, summoned earlier this a « climate change dialogue and exchange meeting » in Beijing this month with diplomatic representatives from Vanuatu, Samoa, Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Micronesia, Fiji and Tonga, the Chinese foreign ministry reported.
The administration on Wednesday deployed Blinken, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Biden climate envoy John Kerry to tout the administration’s determination to improve Pacific island countries’ ties with the United States. “We will have a major event the next day at the Chamber of Commerce when the leaders will have the opportunity to engage with a wide range of business groups ranging from tourism [and] going from energy to technology, to basically talk about how U.S. business groups can engage more actively,” the official said Tuesday.
The president’s special envoy, Ambassador Joseph Yun, told POLITICO last week that the State Department is on track to renew COFAs with Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands by the end of of 2022 after six months of intensive negotiations. These agreements will effectively protect these three countries from Beijing’s efforts to replace the United States as the dominant superpower in the region.
But the Solomon Islands’ initial resistance to signing the summit declaration will increase the administration’s concerns about the influence of the country’s security pact with Beijing on its relationship with the United States. The Solomon Islands denied port access to a US coastguard last month due to « bureaucratic reasons » and then imposed a temporary moratorium on all foreign warships.