Biden is hosting the Pacific Islands, with a rising China in mind

The Pacific island state of Niue is one of the smallest states in the world. Covering an area of ​​just over 100 square miles and a population of about 1,700, it has no army, is not a member of the United Nations and was not recognized by the United States as a sovereign nation until last year.

But President Biden was talking about Niue on Monday at the White House, when he hosted the leaders of 18 Pacific island nations, the second such gathering in a year and the latest example of the regional competition for influence between the United States and China. .

Among Biden’s announcements at the event was that the United States would, for the first time, establish formal diplomatic relations with Niue and the Cook Islands, a nearby haven for swimmers.

Speaking to leaders at the White House on Monday, Biden invoked America’s World War II campaign against Japan in the region and, without naming China, implied that a different kind of battle was taking place.

“Like our predecessors during World War II, we know that much of the world’s history will be written across the Pacific over the coming years,” Biden said. “And like them, we owe it to the next generation to write this story together.” Mr. Biden spent more than two and a half hours with the group, officials said.

Biden’s second US-Pacific Island Forum Summit, as the White House is calling the event, is part of a larger effort by the Biden administration to deepen ties with a chain of islands in the South Pacific, where officials say Beijing hopes to project its military power.

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The event, which reorganizes a previous event last September, is mainly aimed at strengthening and highlighting ties after what officials acknowledged were years of bipartisan neglect. But Mr. Biden also announced that he is working with Congress to invest $40 million in infrastructure spending for the islands, among other initiatives.

These announcements hardly amount to a seismic diplomatic event. But they are two of several recent moves by the Biden administration to bolster the US presence in Australia’s eastern and northeastern region.

During the past year, the United States opened two embassies in the Solomon Islands and Tonga, and plans to open an embassy early next year in Vanuatu. When Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Fiji in February 2022, it was the first visit there by a US secretary of state in 36 years.

Biden had hoped to become the first sitting US president to visit a Pacific island nation, but was forced to cancel a trip to Papua New Guinea in May due to the federal debt ceiling crisis.

These moves are in large part chess moves in response to China’s growing influence in the region, which became particularly evident last year when the Solomon Islands surprised US officials by signing a comprehensive security agreement with Beijing. Analysts say It could eventually allow for a permanent Chinese military presence.

Biden administration officials say their goal is not to compete with China specifically, or to ask countries to choose between Washington and Beijing, but to help ensure a “free and open” Pacific region that is peaceful and hospitable for commercial shipping. But they admit that China’s aggressiveness has forced them to pay more attention to the region.

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China’s state-controlled media has also mocked American efforts to gain influence as part of an apparent power struggle. that Monday’s editorial in Beijing’s China Daily She said the Pacific island nations were “largely forgotten by the West” until recently, “when the United States and its allies began to view China as a competitor.”

“Suddenly, the region became an area of ​​interest on their geopolitical chessboard,” the newspaper said.

Monday’s White House event was part of an elaborate multi-day program that included a Sunday trip to a Baltimore Ravens professional football game, and to a U.S. Coast Guard ship in Baltimore Harbor, for a briefing from the Coast Guard commandant on maritime issues. These issues include the growing problem of illegal fishing off the shores of the two countries, for which China is primarily responsible.

Mr. Blinken was also scheduled to host the leaders at a State Department dinner on Monday evening. They were scheduled to join a roundtable on Tuesday with Treasury Secretary Janet L. They relent and meet with Biden’s special climate envoy, John Kerry.

Biden officials say climate is the top issue for leaders whose countries are at risk of drowning due to rising sea levels. But they are also eager for other forms of US assistance, including a larger Peace Corps presence and undersea cables to increase internet access on the islands.

Adding to the Biden administration’s frustration was the notable absence of a key leader from this week’s meeting: Manasseh Sogavare, the prime minister of the Solomon Islands, whose close relationship with Beijing has raised concerns in Washington.

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Although he was in New York last week for the United Nations General Assembly, Mr. Sogavare did not come to Washington this week.

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