President Joe Biden is hosting the first ever US-Pacific Island Country Summit this week, a multi-day event in Washington focused on cooperation with the United States’ countries in the Pacific region.
Biden’s effort to strengthen ties with the nations by having the summit comes amid the US’ increased focus on countering China’s global influence, and the gathering has already challenged American efforts to engage in strategic partnerships in the region.
In remarks on Thursday at the State Department with the Pacific leaders, Biden said, “A great deal of the history of our world is going to be written in the Indo-Pacific over the coming years and decades. And the Pacific islands are a critical voice in shaping that future. And that’s why my administration has made it a priority to strengthen our partnership with your countries.”
Later Thursday, Biden will host the Pacific leaders for dinner at the White House and participate in an official family photo. A senior administration official told foreign pool reporters who cover the White House that the leaders will also on Thursday meet with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress, as well as business groups at the US Chamber of Commerce.
The summit kicked off on Wednesday when Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed leaders at the State Department and took part in events with several senior administration officials, including Secretary of State Gina Raimondo and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry.
While other presidents in the past have held summits with Pacific nations and the US, all Pacific Island countries have been invited to Washington for Biden’s summit. Leaders or representatives will be present from the Cook Islands, Fiji, French Polynesia, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, New Caledonia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Nauru and Vanuatu. Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General are attending as observers.
On Wednesday, amid a broad set of announcements about new commitments to the Pacific region, the White House said that “the United States has directly provided over $1.5 billion to support the Pacific Islands over the past decade and today has announced over $810 million in additional expanded programs.” The US will also recognize the Cook Islands and Niue.
The White House unveiled a nine-point declaration outlining the commitments, which focus on: supporting the US-Pacific partnership, building American capacity in the region, coordinating with allies and partners, climate, the economy, security and maritime cooperation, cyber security and connectivity, Covid-19 and health security and addressing war legacies.
The administration released a US-Pacific Island Strategy for the first time on Wednesday – a plan meant to complement the earlier release of the Indo-Pacific strategy.
Notably, the strategy includes efforts to expand US diplomatic missions in the Pacific and commits to deploying additional personnel across the region. The strategy would also establish the first US envoy to the Pacific Island Forum and make several climate commitments, increasing the presence of Coast Guard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Department of Defense in the area.
“The purpose of this document is to make it obviously consistent with the goals and objectives of our larger framing. But this is specifically aimed at the concerns and the objectives in the Pacific as a whole,” a senior administration official previewing the summit said.
That official said that the summit is meant to address the most “daunting challenges of the Pacific” including on climate change, health concerns, education training, jobs, challenges associated with recovery from Covid-19 and overfishing. The White House has worked closely in the last months with Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Great Britain and others on these issues, the official added.
The Marshall Islands earlier this month suspended talks to renew its security partnership with the US, citing the longstanding impact of US nuclear testing in the area some 70 years ago.
The declaration unveiled on Thursday indicates that the US is “exploring (unexploded ordnance) assistance options for Kiribati and the Marshall Islands in late 2022 and maintains a Quick Reaction Force to support (unexploded ordnance) engagements across the Pacific at the request of host nation partners.”
China has been expanding its ties to countries in the Pacific Ocean in recent years, and Beijing signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands in April, promising cooperation in trade and education.
Nations including the US and Australia expressed concerns following the announcement, and the Chinese government has denied that the country will set up a military base on the Solomon Islands.
Despite earlier reports suggesting the Solomon Islands would not sign onto the declaration, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday that the leaders involved in the summit have come “come together around a declaration of partnership between the US and the Pacific, one that shows that we have a shared vision for the future and a determination to build that future together.”
“So I’m very pleased that we have this today, that we’ve agreed on it, and it will give us a road map for the work that we’re doing in the future,” he added.
CNN’s Allie Malloy, Sam Fossum and Wayne Chang contributed to this report.