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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Biden aims to wrest influence from China in Pacific islands

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Washington, DC­—President Joe Biden is set to host leaders of Pacific island nations aimed at countering China’s ever-growing influence, proffering goodies ranging from an American football experience to shiny new embassies.

The summit of leaders from the 18-member Pacific Islands Forum will take place Monday (Tuesday in Manila) and Tuesday (Wednesday), one year after the first meeting, which was also in Washington.

According to senior administration officials, Biden will announce a more assertive US stance in the region, funding for infrastructure projects and strengthened maritime cooperation, in particular to fight against illegal fishing.

The forum brings together states and territories scattered across the Pacific Ocean, from Australia to sparsely populated micro-states and archipelagos.

There is “no question that there is some role that the PRC has played in all this…. its assertiveness and influence, including in this region, has been a factor that requires us to sustain our strategic focus,” a senior White House official said on condition of anonymity, referring to China by the abbreviation of its formal name.

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China’s influence will be felt through the absence of the prime minister of the Solomon Islands, now closely aligned with Beijing.

Manasseh Sogavare, who was in New York last week to attend the UN General Assembly, did not extend his stay in the United States.

“We’re disappointed that he’s chosen not to come to this very special summit,” another White House official said.

Another goal of the meeting is to renegotiate “Compacts of Free Association” with the Marshall Islands before current terms expire Saturday.

The agreement, which Washington also has with Micronesia and the Palau archipelago — other territories formerly under American administration — allows the United States to have a military presence on the islands.

In exchange, Washington provides economic assistance and security guarantees, and inhabitants of the islands can live and work in the United States.

The Marshall Islands is demanding that any new agreement account for the effects of Washington’s nuclear testing program there in the 1940s and 50s.

The Biden administration hopes to announce “very substantial progress” in the negotiations, the second White House official said.

For the summit itself, Biden has prepared a full program, kicking off with an afternoon of American gridiron.

The leaders will travel by train on Sunday to Baltimore, where they will be guests of honor at a NFL game between the port city’s Ravens and the Indianapolis Colts.

Monday’s agenda features meetings and a lunch with Biden. On Tuesday, the leaders will meet with top officials on climate and the economy, and spend time with US lawmakers.

According to the administration officials, the United States will announce the establishment of diplomatic ties with the Cook Islands and Niue, a tiny territory with fewer than 2,000 inhabitants.

Washington has opened embassies in the Solomon Islands and Tonga, and wants to inaugurate one early next year in Vanuatu.

The Americans will also unveil millions in infrastructure aid, including funds for secure undersea telecommunications cables.

Finally, the White House intends to propose that the Pacific island states join the “Quad,” a defense cooperation forum bringing together the US, Australia, India and Japan to cooperate on maritime surveillance, especially tracking down vessels engaged in illegal fishing. AFP

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