Shunned for many years, Pacific islands are now drenched in US attention
By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
The Pacific island nations will have the full attention of U.S. President Joe Biden, who will host the regional leaders’ two-day gathering in Washington this week.
Billed as the “first-ever” high-level meeting between the U.S. and island leaders, the Pacific Islands Country Summit will “reflect the United States' broadening and deepening cooperation on key issues” affecting the region, according to a statement from Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
Slated for Sept. 28 and 29, the summit will tackle climate change, pandemic response, economic recovery, maritime security, environmental protection, and advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific, Jean-Pierre said.
Biden’s hosting of the summit marks Washington’s tuned-up public relations campaign to win the region that is increasingly being courted by China.
“The summit will demonstrate the United States’ deep and enduring partnership with Pacific island countries and the Pacific region that is underpinned by shared history, values and people-to-people ties,” Jean-Pierre said.
Topping the summit agenda is the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Continent, which drafters defined as a reinforcement of “commitment and working together as a collective for advancing Pacific regionalism based on the Pacific narrative.”
At the conclusion of the 12th Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders meeting two weeks ago, Pacific leaders endorsed the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Continent, agreeing to stand as a unified bloc to deal with regional issues collectively and guard their sovereignty.
Over the last three years, high-ranking Washington officials, including U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have visited the region amid Beijing’s success in building diplomatic ties with island states such as Kiribati and the Solomon Islands.
In July, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris addressed the Pacific Islands Forum, announcing Washington’s plans to expand U.S. presence in the region by opening more embassies, reviving dormant programs such as the Peace Corps Mission, and extending more economic assistance to island nations.
At the 12th Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders meeting in mid-September, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman presented a long list of programs and funding assistance that Washington has extended to the region.
The U.S. Institute of Peace noted that the Pacific islands region also played prominently in the White House’s February 2022 Indo-Pacific Strategy, which stated that the United States would “seek to be an indispensable partner to Pacific island nations.”
“U.S. interest in the Pacific Islands is growing because of concerns about China’s regional ambitions, including its efforts to get Taiwan’s diplomatic partners to switch recognition — as the Solomon Islands and Kiribati both did in 2019 — and its endeavors to establish a military presence in the region," USIP said.
Earlier this year, the Solomon Islands signed a secretive security agreement with China that could lay the groundwork for a Chinese military facility in the strategically located archipelago.
However, the USIP said, the U.S. has fundamental interests in the Pacific islands regardless of China’s engagement.
“The United States is a Pacific nation, with territories in the region including the state of Hawaii, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam,” USIP said.
The Washington summit will be the first U.S.-Pacific islands meeting with a full plate.
In May 2019, then-President Donald Trump hosted the leaders of freely associated states -- David Panuelo of the Federated States of Micronesia, Hilda Heine of the Marshall Islands and Tommy Remengesau of Palau -- at the White House.
It was a brief meeting, but White House officials branded it as a "historic" and "symbolic" demonstration of U.S. support for the Pacific.
Guam Lt. Gov. Josh Tenorio noted that the U.S territory “has historically served as the grounds for geopolitical action and as a critical driver of regional diplomacy.”
Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero is attending the summit as part of the U.S. delegation.
“We look forward to leveraging these enduring ties to secure substantive and long-term benefits for Guam and the Pacific community,” Tenorio said.
“Our administration has welcomed President Biden's initiatives for more effective and efficient cooperation in support of Pacific Island priorities. As the leader of progressive advancement in the Western Pacific, Guam stands ready to further build climate change resiliency, enhance natural resource management and renewable energy growth, support the Compacts of Free Association, and foster sustainable economic development.”