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White House Hosts First Pacific Islands Summit as China Moves Forward

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This week, President Biden welcomes to the White House for the first time more than a dozen Pacific Island leaders whose countries are receiving new attention and resources as China asserts its own influence in the region.

The high-level courtship, which includes meetings with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, coincides with the filing of a first strategy for the Pacific islands that aims to address the nations. ‘main concerns. These include climate change, recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, illegal fishing, and investments in technology.

The engagement is intended to “step up our game” in the Indo-Pacific region, according to a senior administration official who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity under ground rules laid out by the White House.

As part of this push, the administration will announce that it is investing more than $860 million in expanded programs to help Pacific islands, according to officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not officially authorized to do so.

That money is in addition to more than $1.5 billion in support that has been provided to nations over the last decade, they said.

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The effort appears to have already paid some dividends. On Wednesday, all visiting leaders endorsed an 11-point vision statement committing to joint efforts, the officials said. Notably, they included Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, whose government had previously indicated it needed “time to reflect” on the statement.

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Biden will host a dinner for the leaders at the White House on Thursday. While other Asia-Pacific heads of state have been to the White House, many Pacific Island leaders have never had that opportunity before.

China’s growing reach is transforming a chain of Pacific islands

Among other steps, Washington will expand diplomatic missions from six to nine among Pacific island nations; create a new ambassador post at the Pacific Islands Forum, an international organization of nations similar to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations; and re-establish a United States Agency for International Development mission in Fiji.

The United States will also help Pacific nations build and upgrade undersea cables to improve communications networks and strengthen regional health security to prevent future disease outbreaks.

The summit is an acknowledgment, administration officials said, that the Pacific islands have received “little attention” as the United States has turned its attention elsewhere. “There is also a deeper recognition that in the past we have perhaps paid less attention to these hotspots than we should,” White House Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific Kurt Campbell said in a discussion last week organized by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “I think being honest about that is important.”

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The administration took advantage of the fact that the leaders were in New York so that the UN General Assembly would meet them in Washington. The summit is “symbolically important,” said Gregory Poling, co-director of the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This shows that they are taking it seriously.”

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The inclusion of the summit is significant, Poling said. The administration included not only the islands with which Washington has formal diplomatic relations, but also two French territories and two self-governing countries that are in free association with New Zealand: the Cook Islands and Niue. “The White House did diplomatic gymnastics to show that it is abiding by the formalities of Pacific regionalism,” he said.

“This is framed as an initiative where the White House is doing things on Pacific terms, not trying to dictate to smaller states,” Poling said.

The senior administration official said Tuesday that the Pacific strategy, while consistent with the administration’s strategic goals in the Indo-Pacific region, is “specifically targeted” at the concerns of Pacific island nations.

“The demand signal from the region…is stronger and clearer than ever,” the official said.

Strategic competition between the United States and China is the context for the initiative, Poling said. “The United States wouldn’t be paying as much attention to the Pacific islands if there weren’t fears that it is losing influence to China.”

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But that acknowledgment is fine, he said. “The key is that the United States competes better with China by providing public goods to our partners better than China.”

The money being poured into the Pacific islands may not seem like much compared to what is being spent to help Ukraine roll back. Russian invaders, Poling said. But “it is about assistance for sustainable development in a peaceful region.”

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What’s more, he said, “it’s about hundreds of millions of dollars built on billions of dollars spent in the region [by the United States] for decades.”

Michael E. Miller in Sydney contributed to this report.

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