President Joe Biden said the US would establish diplomatic relations with the Cook Islands as his administration seeks to strengthen ties with Pacific island nations and counter Beijing’s growing influence in the region.
(Bloomberg) — President Joe Biden said the US would establish diplomatic relations with the Cook Islands as his administration seeks to strengthen ties with Pacific island nations and counter Beijing’s growing influence in the region.
“The United States is committed to ensuring an Indo-Pacific region that is free, open, prosperous and secure. We’re committed to working with all the nations around this table to achieve that goal,” Biden said Monday at the Pacific Islands Forum Summit at the White House.
Monday’s summit highlights the growing importance the US has placed on improving strained relations with the region after years of perceived neglect, including on climate change. The US and allies including Australia are worried Pacific island nations are increasingly drifting into China’s orbit and have launched a major diplomatic effort to engage with those countries.
Pacific Island leaders have been skeptical of Washington’s push to revitalize ties after the US reduced its footprint during the Cold War, sharply shifting its diplomatic focus to Europe.
The stakes rose in 2022, when the Solomon Islands signed a security accord with Beijing, spurring fears about a possible Chinese military base in the area. Beijing has paid more attention to the region as it seeks to raise its profile and expand its military and economic links.
The move to establish ties with the Cook Islands will help the two countries “tackle the challenges that matter most to our peoples’ lives—from countering illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, to combating climate change, to building inclusive economic growth, to advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” Biden said in a statement.
While the Cook Islands are self-governing, the nation is in an “associated state” relationship with New Zealand, which is responsible for its defense.
At the summit, Biden also announced efforts to help the region deal with the climate threat.
“We hear your warnings of a rising sea and that they pose an existential threat to your nations,” Biden said.
The US is also providing additional aid for economic development, including investing $40 billion to improve Pacific Island infrastructure.
“It is strategic competition between China and us,” Joseph Yun, a US envoy to the Pacific islands, said earlier this year at the Hudson Institute. “We’re playing a little bit of catchup, but we need to accelerate our catchup.”
Earlier: US Lags Behind China in Push for Sway in Pacific, Envoy Says
Biden hosted the leaders for a summit last year as well, capped by the administration unveiling its first ever Pacific Partnership Strategy, aimed at expanding diplomatic missions, deploying additional personnel across the Pacific and a heightened focus on issues such as climate, health, marine conservation and maritime security.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Friday the leaders’ visit would reaffirm Biden’s “support for strengthening ties with the Pacific Islands and discuss how we address complex global challenges.”
(Updates with additional Biden comments, details)
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