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VOA Asia Weekly: Pacific Island Countries Show Unity

VOA Asia Weekly: Pacific Island Countries Show Unity
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Lab-leak COVID origin theory gains traction in the U.S. End of zero-COVID strategy leads to big gains in China manufacturing activity. Pacific Island countries show unity as Washington and Beijing compete for regional influence. NBA's James Harden surprises student paralyzed in university shooting.

Pacific Island countries show unity as Washington and Beijing compete for influence in the strategically important region.

Welcome to VOA Asia Weekly. I'm Chris Casquejo in Washington. That story is coming up, but first, making headlines:

U.S. FBI Director Christopher Wray said Tuesday the agency has assessed that a leak from a laboratory in Wuhan, China, likely caused the COVID-19 pandemic. China denounced Wray's comments Wednesday and called them the “politicization of origin tracing.”

A new U.S. Congressional Select Committee on competition with China held its first hearing Tuesday evening and focused on human rights. The committee is bipartisan but some Democratic lawmakers have voiced concerns that it could further fuel anti-Asian sentiment in the United States.

Beijing reported Wednesday that its key measure of manufacturing activity showed production expanded at the fastest pace in more than a decade in February, surpassing expectations, after the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions late last year that had made 2022 one of the Chinese economy’s worst years in nearly half a century.

Thousands of workers in Sri Lanka held a one-day strike Wednesday to protest massive increases in taxes and electricity rates. Reports say the government increased taxes by as much as 36 percent and raised the electricity rates by more than 60 percent to put its finances in order and qualify for an IMF bailout.

Vietnam's Communist Party nominated Vo Van Thuong (thew-ng) as the country's new president and he was sworn in Thursday. His predecessor was forced to resign in January as part of a sweeping anti-corruption campaign.

The Pacific Islands Forum has welcomed back Kiribati after the island nation withdrew more than 6 months ago from the key regional group under pressure from Beijing. As VOA’s Jessica Stone reports, the Pacific Islands are again unified just as Washington moves forward with its own negotiations with the region.

Negotiations are actively underway between Washington and the leaders of three Pacific island nations: Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia – to renew a Compact of Free Association.

The three island nations have all signed a framework for negotiations with Washington that will see the U.S. guaranteeing them millions of dollars in financial assistance in exchange for what’s known as strategic denial – that is the ability for the U.S. to block other countries from getting military access to these islands. You may recall these Pacific islands played a strategic role in the Allied military victories over Japan during World War II. Once finalized, the compact will bring Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands closer to the U.S. as China is vying for closer ties in the region. On Tuesday, the top asia official at The U.S. State Department told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that he’s committed to completing the compact negotiations.

“You may have seen, Congressman, that we have concluded MOU’s with all 3 of the freely associated states and we look forward to working with Congress to concluding those deals.”

Washington is strengthening ties with the region just as Kiribati formally returned to the Pacific Islands Forum.

An honor guard greeted Kirabati's president Taneti Maamau when he arrived in Fiji for a leaders’ retreat in late February. Kiribati decided to return to the pacific islands forum earlier this year after Fiji's prime minister – the current chair of the block – formally apologized for not heeding Kiribati's concerns about the group’s leadership. Maamau informed the forum last July that Kiribati would be leaving, dealing a blow to the region’s strategy to remain united as China and the U.S. compete for regional influence. In late February, Fiji's prime minister stressed that the Pacific islands must remain united in the face of climate change and geopolitical pressures.

The regional architecture cannot survive without the relational structure of our family. Reflection on the last few days, meeting as family, I urge us all to be wary of the dark clouds ahead.”

These Pacific island nations now face the classic quandary as many other nations throughout Asia – how to balance relations with China and the United States. Jessica Stone, VOA News, Washington.

Finally, NBA star James Harden surprised a student from China who suffered serious injuries in the Michigan State University shooting with a video call.

20-year-old John Hao was left paralyzed from the waist down in last month’s shooting. He’s a big fan of the Philadelphia 76ers’ player. Harden also sent some gifts to Hao in the hospital and donated to his fundraiser.

Visit for the most up-to-date stories. That’s all the time we have here on VOA Asia Weekly.

Thank you so much for joining us. I’m Chris Casquejo. Please tune in again next week.