Joe Biden’s administration has welcomed Pacific Island leaders for a landmark summit in Washington with promises of greater aid and diplomatic presence, as it attempts to counter China’s rising influence in a region historically linked to the US.
In a first-of-a-kind summit in Washington, leaders from across the remote but strategic islands will meet Biden and the rest of the top US leadership on issues from maritime security to pandemic recovery to climate change, which threatens to devastate many of the low-lying islands.
Opening two days of meetings with 12 leaders and representatives of two other nations, the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, welcomed the leaders to lunch and promised: “You can count on the United States partnering with you.”
The lead-up to the summit had been clouded by the leak of documents showing that the Solomon Islands had rejected a draft US agreement with the region and that Micronesian leaders had raised serious concerns about the level of financial assistance on offer.
A leaked note seen by the Guardian, written by the embassy of Solomon Islands in New York, announced that the country, which signed a controversial security deal with China in April, would not be endorsing a regional diplomatic agreement being proposed by the US.
Blinken on Wednesday made a veiled reference to China’s growing assertiveness around the region and across Asia, saying that the US would work with the islands on “preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific where every nation – no matter how big, no matter how small – has the right to choose its own path.”
Following up on an initiative last week on the sidelines of the UN general assembly, Blinken promised $4.8m to strengthen “blue economies” – cleaner oceans with more sustainable fishing.
He also promised an assertive stance on climate change by the US, which under Biden has approved domestic action on green energy after years of gridlock and skepticism by much of the rival Republican party.
Biden will meet the leaders on Thursday, a personal touch that US officials will hope to help reestablish Washington’s preeminence after long taking for granted a region the US has dominated since the end of the second world war.
Administration officials did not deny that Pacific Island nations voiced concerns that the pivot could be temporary. But officials highlighted the breadth and bipartisan support for the effort.
As part of a new strategy, the US would appoint its first envoy to focus on the Pacific Islands and was adding three more diplomatic missions in the region, bringing the total from six to nine officials said.
The US would also summarize the USAID office in Fiji and expand contacts through the Coast Guard, defense department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The US as well as Australia and New Zealand, which are participating in the summit as observers, had a wake-up call when Solomon Islands signed its secret security pact with China.
After intensive US and Australian appeals, the wider region rejected an overarching pact with China. But western officials fear that Beijing will use Solomon Islands as a base to expand militarily into the Pacific or to pressure Taiwan, a self-governing democracy claimed by Beijing.
The Solomon Islands leader, Manasseh Sogavare, in a speech at the United Nations last week, vowed that his tiny country “will not be coerced into choosing sides”.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Weng Wenbin, asked about Biden’s summit, said that Pacific Island nations were sovereign and had the right to build relations with any country.
“Growing relations with the Pacific Island countries is not about seeking a sphere of influence and does not target any third party,” he told reporters.
The US had hoped that a proposed declaration of a US-Pacific partnership would be adopted by Pacific leaders at this week’s summit. A source involved in the negotiations told the Guardian that Pacific Island leaders had been due to meet on Tuesday night in New York to discuss the declaration, but the meeting was deferred by the Solomon Islands delegation.
“Solomon Islands is not in a position to adopt the declaration this week and will need time to reflect on the declaration and refer the declaration through Solomon Islands’ national decision making process,” says a note addressed to the Pacific Islands Forum secretariat and seen by the Guardian.
The UK is also looking to strengthen its presence in the Indo-Pacific, with the foreign minister, James Cleverly, to say in a speech in Singapore on Thursday that Britain wanted greater economic, security and defense cooperation.
Cleverly, whose trip to the region has also included visits to Japan and South Korea, will tell the audience of business, finance and academic leaders that Britain is set to have “the broadest, most integrated presence in the Indo-Pacific by 2030”.