The United States and Pacific leaders have reached an 11-point Declaration on U.S.-Pacific Partnership as Washington hosts its first summit with leaders from Pacific Island nations.
On Thursday, on the second day of the historic summit, U.S. President Joe Biden announced more than $810 million in expanded programs to aid the Pacific Islands. The U.S. has provided upwards of $1.5 billion to support the Pacific Islands over the past decade, according to a senior administration official.
The U.S. also pledged to recognize the Cook Islands and Niue as sovereign states, following appropriate consultations. While both Cook Islands and Niue have full constitutional independence from New Zealand and act as independent countries, the U.S. considered them as self-governing territories and has not established formal diplomatic relations.
Biden will appoint a first-ever U.S. envoy to the regional Pacific Islands Forum. USAID will reestablish its mission in Suva, Fiji, by September 2023.
“The security of America, quite frankly, and the world depends on your security, and the security of the Pacific Islands,” Biden said during remarks to the Pacific leaders at the State Department. Biden added that new U.S. assistance is aimed at ensuring “an Indo Pacific region that's free and open, one that is stable and prosperous, and resilient and secure.”
Washington’s plan to deepen diplomatic engagement with the Pacific comes as concerns grow about China’s expanding influence in the region.
Earlier, the Solomon Islands had indicated it would not sign a joint declaration during the high-profile gathering, just five months after it signed a security agreement with China.
“China has been seeking to establish military relationships with some of these [Pacific Islands] countries, in at least a couple of locations,” said Chris Johnstone, a senior adviser at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Johnstone said there’s an indication the Beijing government has been pursuing actual military bases in some of these countries.
Under one of the new initiatives agreed to by the U.S. and Pacific Islands leaders, the U.S. will invest $20 million to boost Solomon Islands’ tourism and to reduce poverty in the island country.
The U.S. will also launch a new trade and investment dialogue with the Pacific Island nations, enhance maritime security, and provide up to $3.5 million over five years to improve the region’s internet connectivity and to support cyber security.
Earlier this month, the Marshall Islands suspended talks with American officials about renewing the two countries' strategic partnership, protesting what it perceives as the U.S. failure to address the health and environmental impacts from U.S. nuclear testing in the region during the 1940s and 1950s.
Many on the Marshall Islands believed a U.S. settlement of $150 million agreed to in the 1980s fell short of addressing the nuclear legacy.
“The United States remains committed to addressing the Republic of the Marshall Islands’ ongoing environmental, public health concerns, and other welfare concerns,” said the Declaration on U.S.-Pacific Partnership. It did not mention additional dollar amounts for compensation.
“While, from a U.S. perspective, ongoing negotiations on grant funding under the Compact of Free Association do not concern the nuclear issue, the Marshall Islands see the negotiations as an opportunity to press its case,” said Brian Harding, a senior expert on Southeast Asia for the U.S. Institute of Peace.
The Marshall Islands, Palau and Micronesia are so-called Freely Associated States (FAS) that had signed treaties with the United States. Current agreements expire in September 2023 for the Marshall Islands and Micronesia and one year later for Palau.
Under the soon-to-expire treaties known as Compacts of Free Association, the three Pacific Island nations receive grant aid and security guarantees from the U.S. government. FAS citizens can live and work in the U.S. without a visa.
In exchange, the United States has the right to build military bases in these three island nations and can deny outsider access to those countries' waters, airspace and land.
The U.S. expects the negotiation for all three Compact agreements to be concluded by the end of this year.
Anita Powell and Richard Green contributed to this report.