This week, President Joe Biden will attend a second meeting with leaders of Pacific island nations as part of a charm drive by the United States to prevent additional Chinese incursions into a vital region that Washington has long regarded as its own backyard.
The United States will formally recognize two Pacific islands during the three-day summit, provide further funding for infrastructure, including for undersea cables to increase Internet connectivity, and honor regional leaders during an NFL game.
Inaugural summits with the islanders were conducted at the White House a year ago, and Biden was scheduled to have another meeting with them in Papua New Guinea in May. When Biden had to cut short his trip to Asia due to the U.S. debt ceiling issue, that plan was abandoned.
Biden’s administration promised to assist islands in resisting China’s “economic coercion” during a meeting with 14 Pacific island nations last year. A joint declaration made clear that the summit participants shared a goal for a region where “democracy will be able to flourish.”
The White House announced that this year’s effort would concentrate on pressing issues like combating illicit fishing, public health, economic growth, and sustainable development.
During the meeting, the United States will also formally recognize the Cook Islands and another tiny country, Niue.
A Coast Guard cutter will be in the harbor when the leaders arrive in Baltimore on Sunday, and the Commandant of the Coast Guard will brief them on the fight against illegal fishing, an official said.
The leaders will also be present at the Baltimore Ravens vs. Indianapolis Colts football game on Sunday. Numerous NFL players have ancestry from Pacific Islands.
Manasseh Sogavare, the prime minister of the Solomon Islands, who has improved relations with China, will not attend the summit. An important member of the Biden administration stated that the US was “disappointed” in Sogavare’s choice.
The Solomon Islands’ requests for increased aid and significant financing for infrastructure appear to have received no response from Washington. Sogavare announced a policing agreement with Beijing during a trip to China in July, building on a security arrangement that was reached the previous year.
In 2022, the White House announced that the United States would devote more than $810 million to broader aid initiatives for the Pacific islands.
While the United States has opened new embassies and USAID offices throughout the region since the summit last year, Meg Keen, director of Pacific Island Programs at Australia’s Lowy Institute, noted that Congress had not yet approved the funds.
Pacific island nations, she continued, “welcome the U.S. re-engagement with the region, but don’t want geopolitical tussles to result in an escalation of militarization.” According to his office, Sato Kilman, the prime minister of Vanuatu, will also not go to the conference.
Kilman was chosen by parliament two weeks ago to succeed Ishmael Kalsakau, who was ousted for his actions, which included forging a security agreement with an ally of the United States, Australia.
Vanuatu, whose main foreign creditor is China, has not seen a significant boost in American participation despite ongoing negotiations to establish an embassy there. China struck a policing partnership and deployed police experts to Vanuatu last month.
The U.S. was on schedule to establish the Vanuatu embassy by early next year, according to a senior Biden administration official, and additional Vanuatu officials would attend the summit.
Fiji has praised the increased American presence in the region for making the Pacific “more secure,” while Kiribati, one of the most isolated Pacific island nations, has announced intentions to rehabilitate a derelict World War Two runway with Chinese assistance this year. Kiribati is located 2,500 miles (4,000 km) southwest of Hawaii.
This year, Washington extended agreements with Palau and Micronesia that grant it exclusive military access to key Pacific islands, but it has not yet done so with the Marshall Islands because it needs more funding to address the effects of extensive nuclear tests conducted by the United States in the 1940s and 1950s.
Officials in the Biden administration expressed confidence in their ability to reach an agreement with the Marshall Islands.