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US reveals Pacific strategy to counter China’s influence

A boat crosses the sea in Hong Kong on Nov. 6, 2021. (Bertha Wang/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

The U.S. has revealed a new strategy to prioritize Pacific nations in its foreign policy, seeking to temper concerns over climate change and development in a bid to counter China’s growing influence in the vast oceanic region.

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris announced the new commitment, including plans to open more U.S. embassies, in a speech delivered virtually to the Pacific Island Forum leaders meeting in Fiji on Wednesday. Regional leaders and diplomats have been meeting in Suva since Monday.

“We recognize that in recent years, the Pacific Islands may not have received the diplomatic attention and support that you deserve. So today I am here to tell you directly, we are going to change that,” Harris said in her speech.

Harris announced the U.S. would appoint a designated Pacific Islands Forum envoy to further increase its diplomatic footprint across the region, as well as new embassies in Kiribati and Tonga. That’s in addition to the U.S. embassy in the Solomon Islands, which is already in the process of reopening.

The U.S. is joining governments including Australia and New Zealand in urgently ramping up relations with Pacific Island nations as China races to woo the strategically important region, amid perceptions that the larger neighbors neglected their partnerships in recent years. Officials were shocked by the signing of a security agreement between the Solomon Islands and China in April, a major diplomatic victory for Beijing and its first such deal in the Pacific.

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Harris on Wednesday also announced plans to increase funding to $60 million annually for projects in the Pacific, including climate resilience infrastructure, combating illegal fishing and investing in marine conservation. The new funding is subject to approval by the U.S. Congress.

The four-day meeting, which has seen Pacific Island countries discuss ways to draw more international support for development and climate change, has been overshadowed by Kiribati earlier withdrawing from the regional group. The Micronesian country left over a leadership dispute within the bloc.

The White House said the new agreement would come under the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Fiji in May joined the U.S. in a wide-ranging Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, making it the first Pacific Island nation to do so. During her speech, Harris unveiled plans to re-establish a U.S. Agency for International Development outpost in Fiji and bring back Peace Corps volunteers to several countries.

‘Bad actors’

The vice president is the latest senior American official to engage with the region where competition with China has been escalating since the Solomon Islands pact. Although the final details of that agreement haven’t been made public, a leaked draft said it would allow Chinese warships a safe harbor just 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) off Australia’s coastline.

During her speech to the Forum, Harris said it was important for international states to be able to conduct themselves “free from aggression or coercion.”

“At a time when we see bad actors seeking to undermine the rules-based order, we must stand united,” she said.

The U.S. and Australia rely on the Pacific for their economic and national security, while China is keen to gain the support of developing nations for its diplomatic agenda globally, especially in the United Nations.

China’s State Councilor Wang Yi made a rare eight-day visit to the Pacific in May to sign economic agreements with several nations, including a wide-ranging economic and security treaty that turned out to be unsuccessful.

China’s Foreign Ministry said on Monday that Beijing had nothing to do with Kiribati withdrawing from the Pacific Islands.

“For years, China and the Pacific Island Forum have had sound cooperative relations,” spokesman Wang Wenbin said in a regular press briefing. “China does not interfere in the internal affairs of Pacific Islands countries and hopes to see greater solidarity and closer cooperation among PICs for common development.”


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