Biden to host second summit with Pacific islands at White House on Monday

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden will host a second summit with leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum at the White House on Monday, part of his efforts to step up engagement with a region where the U.S. is in a battle for influence with China.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement the summit with the 18-member forum would take place on Monday and Tuesday.

At the summit, Biden would “reaffirm the U.S. commitment to our shared regional priorities” with the Pacific islanders, and deepen cooperation with them in a range of areas, the statement said.

These included “tackling the climate crisis; advancing economic growth; promoting sustainable development; strengthening health security; countering illegal, unreported fishing; and expanding our people-to-people ties,” it said.

The statement said the summit would build on an inaugural summit between the two sides in September last year.

Biden hosted a first summit with 14 Pacific island nations a year ago at which his administration pledged to help islanders stave off China’s “economic coercion,” and he promised to work harder with allies and partners to address their needs.

The Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum Henry Puna told an event in New York on Monday ahead of this week’s annual U.N. General Assembly that he hoped the summit would bring concrete actions on issues including climate change and the region’s efforts to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Puna said the Pacific island region had gone from a period of strategic neglect just a decade ago to become a subject of strategic interest, competition and “manipulation” today – a reference to the geopolitical rivalry for influence in the region between the United States and China.

He said the stance of the Pacific island countries was that they would “engage with any partner who is willing to work with us, rather than around us.”

Mark Brown, prime minister of the Cook Islands and current chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, said at the same event the region was looking to the Washington summit for “tangible” U.S. engagement that would help economic growth through improved transportation links and increased trade.

They also sought significant U.S. contributions to the Green Climate Fund at a pledging conference in Germany next month, Brown said.

“Climate change is the most significant challenge to our progress towards achieving sustainable development,” Palau’s President Surangel Whipps Jr told the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday.

He described an island he fished on as a child that is now two-thirds submerged by rising sea levels, causing turtles to lay eggs in a tidal zone where they are unlikely to survive.

Simplified access to climate financing was “crucial” for the Pacific’s small island states, whose economies are struggling from a tourism downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and rising costs fuelled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he said.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh, Eric Beech and David Brunnstrom; additional reporting by Kirsty Needham. Editing by Doina Chiacu, Sandra Maler and Michael Perry)