As part of the Biden Administration’s effort to show its commitment to the Asia-Pacific region, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, during a visit to Fiji on Saturday, will host a virtual meeting with 18 Pacific nation leaders and announce U.S. plans to reopen an embassy in the Solomon Islands.
During the virtual meeting with the regional leaders, Blinken will also discuss "the climate crisis, ending the COVID-19 pandemic, disaster assistance, and ways to further our shared commitment to democracy, regional solidarity, and prosperity in the Pacific" according to the State Department.
The visit comes at a time when China is also seeking to strengthen its partnerships in the region.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink said ahead of Blinken’s visit to Asia, which has also taken him to Australia, "The key message that the secretary will take with him on this trip is that our partnerships deliver."
The State Department said in a statement Friday that “the Pacific region remains a foreign policy priority for the United States, and we have deep and longstanding ties to Fiji and the other countries of the Pacific.”
Blinken was in Australia earlier this week for meetings with leaders of the Quad countries, which includes the United States, Australia, Japan and India.
The Quad ministers vowed in a joint statement Friday to cooperate more closely to ensure the Indo-Pacific region was free of "coercion," a veiled reference to China's economic and military expansion.
They also promised to strengthen cooperation on the coronavirus pandemic, cyberthreats and counterterrorism, while condemning North Korea’s "destabilizing ballistic missile launches," which are in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, who hosted the Quad meeting, said the leaders addressed issues of fishing and climate change, which are a priority for countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
She said the leaders “agreed to boost maritime security support for Indo-Pacific partners to strengthen their maritime domain awareness and ability to develop their offshore resources, to ensure freedom of navigation and overflight and to combat challenges such as illegal fishing."
Payne said Wednesday that the gathering sends a message to China that security in the region remains a priority for the United States.
Blinken is visiting the region as part of a Biden administration effort to show its long-term strategic focus remains on the Asia-Pacific region and that the Ukraine crisis will not distract it from its main priorities.
The crisis in Ukraine was addressed during the Quad meetings with Blinken warning Friday that Russia could attack Ukraine at “any time” and warning Americans to leave Ukraine immediately.
Blinken cited “troubling signs” regarding Russia, including adding to the more than 100,000 troops it has amassed at the Ukrainian border.
“As we’ve said before, we’re in a window when an invasion could begin at any time. And to be clear, that includes during the Olympics,” Blinken said at a joint news conference in Canberra.
“We’re continuing to draw down our embassy, Blinken said. “We will continue that process. And we’ve also been very clear that any American citizens who remain in Ukraine should leave now.”
Russia maintains it has no plans to invade Ukraine but wants the West to keep Ukraine and other former Soviet countries out of NATO.
Blinken's visit to Australia was his first trip there since an enhanced trilateral security partnership known as AUKUS — Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States — was announced in September. The agreement includes a deal to build nuclear-propelled submarines for Australia as part of enhanced deterrence against China's military expansion across the Indo-Pacific region.
"The Quad is not a military alliance, but it is not lost on China that you have four democracies, all with a strong maritime presence and advanced military capabilities, concerned by the increasingly aggressive approach China takes with its neighbors," said Charles Edel, the Australia chair of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Blinken’s visit to the Asia-Pacific region comes amid a growing partnership between China and Russia that was on display during Sunday's meeting in Beijing between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the beginning of the Winter Olympics. The meeting occurred amid Russia's military buildup along neighboring Ukraine's borders and China's increasingly assertive efforts to reunite Taiwan with the mainland.
In Beijing, Chinese officials have expressed wariness over the Quad and AUKUS.
China criticized the U.S. Friday for trying to "discredit, suppress and contain" the country's development after Blinken said earlier this week there were concerns "that in recent years, China has been acting more aggressively at home and more aggressively in the regions."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian rejected the remarks, telling reporters at a daily briefing the U.S. revealed an "ideological bias."
Zhao described the alliance as "a tool to contain China and maintain U.S. hegemony."
After the stop in Fiji the top U.S. diplomat will travel to Honolulu, Hawaii, before he returns to Washington.
Some information in this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.