SYDNEY, Australia — The United States and 14 Pacific island nations signed a broad partnership agreement Thursday at a summit in Washington, putting climate change, economic growth and stronger security ties at the center of a U.S. push to counter the Chinese influence in the region.
“Much of our world’s history will be written in the Indo-Pacific in the years and decades to come,” President Biden said in a meeting with the island’s leaders. “And the Pacific Islands are a critical voice in shaping the future.”
“The security of the United States, frankly, and of the world,” he added, “depends on your security and the security of the Pacific Islands.”
His comments, and his promise of increased funding and cooperation from the United States, reflected a realization that has only recently become more urgent in Washington: that China has made significant progress in the island chains of the North and South Pacific, where Thousands of Americans fought and died in World War II, and that America needs to catch up.
This week’s summit was first announced shortly after the Solomon Islands signed a security agreement in April with Beijing that opened the door to Chinese law enforcement training and a potential foothold for Chinese security forces. .
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That deal may end up being a high point for China, which is viewed with more skepticism across the Pacific than it was a few years ago, but sensitivities around China’s foreign policy priorities still seemed to haunt the Washington summit.
Manasseh Sogavare, the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, initially rejected to sign the association agreement, in what critics described as a nod to Beijing. His signature and those of the other leaders came to the declaration only after a provision that mentioned Taiwan, a democratic island that China considers a breakaway province, was removed from the draft.
In briefings, White House officials said the United States was committed to dialogue with countries in the region on difficult issues. They stressed that the summit had produced partnership opportunities and additional commitments beyond the recent promise of three new US embassies, in Tonga, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati.
The United States will invest more than $810 million in expanded programs for the Pacific Islands, on top of the more than $1.5 billion provided in the past decade, according to a White House fact sheet.
Much of the money would be for climate resilience and maritime security, including a $600 million request to Congress related to a decades-old fisheries treaty that allows the United States to harvest tuna in South Pacific waters.
But the package also includes some interesting chocolates: a $20 million grant to the Solomon Islands for tourism development, $3.5 million for digital connectivity in the country, and $2.8 million for FBI-led police training.
Initially reserved for three Pacific island nations, law enforcement assistance will now be extended to six: the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.
Peace Corps volunteers will also return to Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu, while other countries are also being considered for the program. And the United States, according to the White House, is also engaged in bilateral negotiations with Fiji on a defense cooperation agreement, and will soon begin talks with Papua New Guinea.
The region’s leaders seemed mostly pleased with the summit. China’s leader Xi Jinping has given a red carpet welcome to Pacific leaders for nearly a decade. Biden’s charm offense appeared to be more casual.
Regional analysts said US aid, spread across so many countries, would be far from transformative.
“The dilemma, as always, is how to get private US companies to invest more in the Pacific,” said Graeme Smith, a Pacific Islands expert at the Australian National University. “They can turn on the military tap and, with congressional approval, the aid tap, but unlike China, they can’t pressure their companies to engage with the region.”
Anna Powles, a senior lecturer in security studies at Massey University in New Zealand, noted that announcements of the initiatives were a bit skimpy on administrative details.
One of the main complaints about US diplomacy in the Pacific is that it is too bogged down by bureaucratic requirements and understaffed, making the US a bureaucratic tortoise for China’s swift hare. For many people on the islands, it will take more than fact sheets and summits to change that perception.
“The region will look at how all of those commitments will be executed,” Professor Powles said. “They will look for consistency in commitment.”