U.S. embarks on ‘new chapter’ with Pacific island nations

U.S. embarks on ‘new chapter’ with Pacific island nations

FORUM Staff

Pacific island nations and territories applauded United States Vice President Kamala Harris’ promise to intensify her nation’s presence in the region while committing to more than a half-dozen beneficial initiatives.

Appearing virtually at the 51st Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) annual meeting in mid-July 2022, Harris, pictured, said the U.S. will embark on a new chapter in its partnership with the islands, expanding upon an existing foundation built on historic ties, people-to-people bonds and shared values.

“We recognize that in recent years, the Pacific islands may not have received the diplomatic attention and support that you deserve,” Harris told PIF leaders. “So today I am here to tell you directly, we are going to change that.”

Harris’ 10-minute speech took place as leaders of the 18-member PIF met in Suva, Fiji, for their annual session. Forum Secretary General Henry Puna, former prime minister of the Cook Islands, said it was “very refreshing, and also very reassuring that the Americans are now fully committed to re-engaging with the Pacific in a meaningful and substantive way,” according to The New Zealand Herald newspaper.

Harris said the U.S. will:

  • Establish U.S. embassies in Kiribati and Tonga.
  • Ask the U.S. Congress to commit U.S. $60 million annually for the next 10 years for fisheries assistance. That’s almost triple the current U.S. funding for the South Pacific Tuna Treaty.
  • Appoint a U.S. envoy to the PIF, which White House officials view as the region’s preeminent leadership body.
  • Establish a U.S. strategy on the Pacific Islands, which will complement the nation’s Indo-Pacific Strategy released in February 2022.
  • Return Peace Corps volunteers to the Pacific islands.
  • Work toward reestablishing a Pacific mission of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Fiji.
  • Advance the Partners in the Blue Pacific, a multilateral bloc formed in 2022 and comprised of Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the U.S., to promote Pacific interests internationally.

The measures were crafted to reflect priorities of the Pacific Islands and support the far-flung states’ geopolitical unification.

“What it shows is that there’s an increasing U.S. interest in the Pacific Island countries, but that’s actually backed up with real policies and real engagement,” Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

 Harris’ presentation was viewed as a slight to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which continues its attempts to make strategic inroads in Pacific. Fijian police removed two Chinese Communist Party (CCP) attaches who snuck into the PIF session where Harris spoke, according to The Guardian newspaper.

The PRC and the U.S. have increased efforts in recent months to gain favor among Pacific island nations, especially since the PRC signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands in April 2022 that Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. worry could lead to the CCP establishing a naval base in the Solomons.

Manasseh Sogavare, prime minister of the Solomon Islands, has denied this could happen.

Harris said the U.S. commitments will not leave Pacific nations in insurmountable debt. Indo-Pacific nations elsewhere have faced financial hardships after defaulting on PRC loans for One Belt, One Road infrastructure projects on their soil.

Puna, the PIF general secretary, said U.S. history in the region “goes back a long way. We’ve been friends for so long. And it’s nice to see that friendship brought back to life in a meaningful way.”

“The history and future of the Pacific Islands and the United States are inextricably linked,” Harris told PIF leaders. “The United States is a proud Pacific nation and has an enduring commitment to the Pacific Islands.”

IMAGE CREDIT: The Associated Press

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