Harris unveils US plans to boost presence and send more aid to Pacific islands region
By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
In a bid to keep up with China's pace, the United States will expand its presence in the Pacific islands region by forging new diplomatic relations, reviving dormant programs and extending more economic assistance to island nations.
"All of these steps will enable us to increase our engagement, and develop and deliver concrete results," Vice President Kamala Harris said, announcing Washington's roster of diplomatic strategies for the region during the 51st Pacific Islands Forum Leadership meeting which opened Monday.
Harris said Washington will open new embassies in Tonga and Kiribati, appoint the first-ever envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum, reactivate the Peace Corps program in the region and re-establish the U.S. Agency for International Development's mission in Fiji.
"We recognize that in recent years, the Pacific islands may not have received the diplomatic attention and support that you deserve. So today I am here to tell you directly: We are going to change that," Harris said, addressing the Forum leaders virtually.
Harris also announced Washington's plan to triple U.S. funding for economic development and ocean resilience for the Pacific Islands. "We will request from the U.S. Congress an increase from $21 million per year to $60 million per year for the next 10 years," she said. "These funds will help strengthen climate resilience; invest in marine planning and conservation; and combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing; and enhance maritime security," Harris added. Washington has been stepping up its diplomatic ties with Pacific island nations to make up for long years of neglecting the region where China has been making inroads for its Belt and Road Initiative.
In April, a high-level U.S. delegation led by National Security Council Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink traveled to the region at the height of brouhaha over the Solomon Islands' move to seal a security agreement with Beijing.
Observers have raised concerns that the pact might have opened the gate for the People's Liberation Army to carve out a presence in the region.
During the Campbell delegation's trip, the U.S. and the Solomon Islands "agreed to launch a high-level strategic dialogue' to "enhance communication" and "discuss in greater detail security issues of mutual concern."
Harris said in the coming months, the U.S. plans to build on the foundation of the Indo-Pacific strategy, which was launched by the White House earlier this year.
" We will significantly deepen our engagement in the Pacific islands. We will embark on a new chapter in our partnership — a chapter with increased American presence where we commit to working with you in the short and long term to take on the most pressing issues that you face," the vice president said. " We will engage transparently and constructively, which means we will listen, collaborate, and coordinate at every step of the way. We will also work to empower a strong and united Pacific Islands Forum, which will strengthen your voice on the world stage as we continue to work together." Harris said the U.S. will coordinate its efforts with allies and partners, including Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
"All of this work recognizes that our partnership with the Pacific islands spans a wide range of issues," Harris said. "With respect to the climate crisis, for example, you are on the frontlines of an existential crisis for our entire planet. But you are on the frontlines, and the world’s emissions have an outsized impact on your nations."