Biden seeks to win over Pacific island leaders at summit

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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden is expected to host Pacific Island leaders for a two-day summit as the United States seeks to counter China’s military and economic influence in the region. Pacific island leaders, meanwhile, see an even more pressing concern: climate change.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken planned to kick off the summit with a luncheon for Pacific island leaders and other senior officials from the region. US climate envoy John Kerry will host a climate roundtable with the leaders, and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan will join them for a dinner hosted by the Coast Guard Americans.

Biden is expected to address State Department leaders on Thursday and host them for dinner at the White House. The leaders are also scheduled to meet with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and U.S. business leaders.

Leaders from Fiji, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, French Polynesia and New Caledonia are present. Vanuatu and Nauru are sending representatives, and Australia, New Zealand and the secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum are sending observers, according to the White House.

“It just shows our partnership with the region,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. She added that the talks should focus on climate change, the coronavirus pandemic and economic recovery, maritime security, environmental protection and the Indo-Pacific.

The first such summit comes as the administration seeks to demonstrate that the United States remains committed to being a sustainable player in the region.

While the high-level rally is welcomed by regional leaders as a signal of Biden’s commitment to the Pacific, there is also healthy skepticism about whether the United States will remain engaged in the longer term. Pacific Islands. The region received less attention from the United States in the aftermath of the Cold War, analysts say.

For the Biden administration, stemming China’s growing influence is a top priority. But for many Pacific Island leaders, climate change is the existential crisis that demands attention above all else.

Last week at the United Nations General Assembly, Prime Minister Kausea Natano of the small island of Tuvalu described how rising sea levels have impacted everything from the soil his people rely on for plant crops, houses, roads and power lines that are washed away. The cost of living, he said, eventually becomes too much to bear, causing families to leave and the nation to demise.

“This is how our islands will cease to exist,” Natano said.

In June, Inia Seruiratu, Fiji’s defense minister, said at the Shangri-La Dialogue that “machine guns, fighter jets, gray ships and green battalions are not our primary security concern” .

“The greatest threat to our very existence is climate change,” he said.

Plans for the summit were announced earlier this month, just days after the Solomon Islands called on the United States and Britain not to send warships to the South Pacific nation until the approval process will not have been revised. The Solomons signed a new security pact with China in April — a moment that analysts say has created heightened urgency for the Biden administration to focus more on the region.

The United States and Britain are among countries fearful that a new security pact with Beijing could lead to the construction of a Chinese naval base less than 2,000 kilometers off the northeast coast of Australia.

Darshana Baruah, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Beijing has proven to be more present in the region in recent decades.

“The first questions from the islands in the United States are, ‘Will this last beyond the current tense cycle? Are you going to keep showing up? “said Baruah. “The second question is, ‘What kind of message does this send across the Indo-Pacific? Are you mistakenly giving the impression that if you want to get Washington’s attention, you have to take over the Beijing stock market? »

Leading up to the summit, Pacific island leaders have made it clear they want more help from the United States to combat the effects of climate change and help their economies recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a senior Biden administration official.

The official, who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that the ‘stall’ of US efforts in the region comes down to ‘every meeting’ with Pacific island leaders . The White House plans to announce its first US Pacific Islands Strategy and announce that the Democratic President will appoint a US envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum.

The Biden administration aims to draft a joint statement of participating countries to conclude the summit, but the Solomon Islands has signaled it may not sign. The official said discussions are ongoing.

The United States will also seek to mend relations with the Marshall Islands, which for decades has been a strong ally but is bitterly vying for a treaty that needs to be renewed.

Just last week, the Marshall Islands pulled out of a negotiating session with the United States over its Compact of Free Association, which expires next year. The Marshall Islands says the United States is not engaging in its demand for appropriate reparations following the legacy of US nuclear testing on the islands.

The Marshall Islands says dozens of tests in the 1940s and 1950s caused significant environmental and health damage, which a settlement in the 1980s failed to address.

The United States has treated the Marshall Islands, along with nearby Micronesia and Palau, much like territories since World War II, and observers fear that a weakening of those ties could play into China’s hands.

The administration in recent months has sought to have a greater presence in the region. In February, Blinken became the first US secretary of state to visit Fiji in 37 years. And in recent months, the United States along with Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the United Kingdom have launched an informal group aimed at strengthening economic and diplomatic relations with Pacific island nations dubbed Partners in the Blue Pacific.

During the visit to Fiji, Blinken announced that the United States would open an embassy in the Solomon Islands. The United States operated an embassy in the Solomons for five years before closing it in 1993. Since then, American diplomats from neighboring Papua New Guinea have been accredited to the Solomons, which has a US consular agency.

Guadalcanal, the largest landmass in the Solomon Islands, was the site of crucial battles between Allied forces and Japan at the start of World War II.

Associated Press writer Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand, contributed reporting.

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