New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern urged President Joe Biden to engage more with Pacific Island states amid China's concerted push to increase its clout in the region when she met with the U.S. leader at the White House on Tuesday.
"We'll be encouraging the United States to really continue and strengthen engagement in our region, including economic engagement, which is really critical to our region," Ardern said.
Biden reiterated that his administration was seeking to partner with countries in the region. "We have more work to do in those Pacific Islands," he said.
The Biden-Ardern meeting followed a series of engagements the administration has had with Indo-Pacific countries in May, beginning with a Washington summit with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN; Biden's visit last week to allies South Korea and Japan; and the summit in Tokyo among leaders of the Quad, an informal grouping of the U.S., Japan, India and Australia.
The Pacific Islands include Papua New Guinea, the U.S. commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, French Polynesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Palau, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and Wallis and Futuna.
Since Chinese President Xi Jinping took office in 2013, Beijing has significantly bolstered involvement in the Pacific Islands region, focusing on expanding economic ties and increasing its footprint in the diplomacy and security realms. According to a 2018 U.S. government report, China is a major player in the region, well ahead of the United States in most areas including trade, investment, development assistance and tourism.
The Biden administration is "playing catch-up," said Patrick Cronin, the Asia-Pacific security chair at Hudson Institute.
"We've relied very heavily over the years on Australia, for instance, for their development, engagement with the Pacific Islands," Cronin told VOA. "Clearly, that's not sufficient."
In February, Antony Blinken went to Fiji — the first U.S. secretary of state to make the trip in 36 years — and promised a new era of regional focus and engagement from the U.S.
New Zealand has raised concerns about the Chinese presence in the Indo-Pacific region following Beijing's security deal with the Solomon Islands. The pact, signed in April, would allow China to "make ship visits to, carry out logistical replacement in, and have stopover and transition in the Solomon Islands."
Meanwhile, on Saturday, Beijing signed a bilateral agreement with Samoa promising "greater collaboration." The deal includes an economic and technical cooperation agreement, a handover certificate for an arts and culture center and the Samoa-China Friendship Park, and an exchange of letters for a fingerprint laboratory for the police, a Samoan government news release said.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has been on a 10-country diplomatic blitz, pushing for a sweeping regional security pact that would allow Beijing to expand political ties, increase maritime cooperation and gain greater access to natural resources in return for millions of dollars in financial assistance and the prospect of a free trade agreement opening access to China's market of 1.4 billion people.
So far, China's effort has been rebuffed. Earlier this week, the Pacific Island leaders said they could not agree to the "Common Development Vision" proposed by Beijing.
The 10 Pacific Island nations are concerned about the "substance of the communique and the lack of consensus building around the process by which China pursued it," said Anna Powles, senior lecturer at the Centre for Defense and Security Studies at Massey University in New Zealand.
While China is likely to double down on its bilateral relationships in the Pacific, it is also set to continue to pursue this new multilateral approach, Powles told VOA.
In their meeting, Biden and Ardern "did not get into specific details about efforts by other countries," a senior administration official told VOA when asked whether the U.S. was concerned about the Chinese initiative.
"They did discuss the importance of working together to present an affirmative vision for the region as well as solidifying the traditional areas of cooperation and building new ones," the official said.
Indo-Pacific Economic Framework
Ardern expressed support for the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, or IPEF, calling it "a significant opportunity to build the economic resilience of our region," but signaled that New Zealand would continue to advocate for the U.S. to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP.
IPEF is the leading U.S. effort to reengage Indo-Pacific nations in trade more than five years after the Trump administration withdrew from a regional comprehensive trade pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. Following Washington's departure, TPP eventually became CPTPP — an 11-country bloc that now constitutes one of the largest free trade areas in the world.
Thirteen countries, including the Pacific Island nations of New Zealand and Fiji, have signed on as "founding members" of IPEF, an outline of standards and norms to facilitate trade that Biden launched while he was in Tokyo.
IPEF is not a free trade agreement that needs to be passed by Congress, where there is now little political appetite to open U.S. markets due to protectionist concerns for American workers.
Without a trade promotion authority granted by Congress, the administration lacks credibility in the region, said Susan Aaronson, professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.
However, China's "lack of respect for the rule of law to its own citizens" and toward existing supply chain contracts during the pandemic has been "so dramatic" that it is causing countries to rethink their relationships, she said.
"It is a huge opportunity for the United States," she told VOA, adding that IPEF is "a creative way to try to get at these issues."
During their meeting, Biden, who had just returned from the town of Uvalde, Texas, where an 18-year-old man killed 19 children and two teachers, praised Ardern's leadership in curbing extremism and gun violence in New Zealand.
"We need your guidance," he said.
In 2019, less than a month after a white supremacist gunman killed 51 Muslim worshippers at two Christchurch mosques, New Zealand lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to ban military-style semiautomatic weapons and enacted a buyback program.
"Our experience, of course, in this regard, is our own, but if there's anything that we can share that would be of any value, we are here to share it," Ardern said.
According to the nonprofit group Gun Violence Archive, the Uvalde school shooting is the 213th mass shooting in which four or more people were shot or killed in the U.S. in 2022.
"There's an expression by an Irish poet that says, 'Too long a suffering makes a stone of the heart.' Well, there's an awful lot of suffering," Biden told Ardern. "I've been to more mass shooting aftermaths than, I think, any president in American history, unfortunately."
Even as Americans from both sides of the political aisle demand action in the wake of the latest violence, gun control legislation has remained deadlocked for decades, with Senate Republicans blocking even measures that receive broad public support, such as universal background checks for gun buyers.