Pacific Island summit at White House ‘collaborative’: US official

By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Senior U.S. officials said on Friday that a White House summit with a dozen Pacific Islands leaders this week was successful, and that Washington was listening to the region, not asking countries to choose between the U.S. and China.

U.S. President Joe Biden met the Pacific Island leaders for a second summit in just over a year on Monday, pledging new infrastructure investment including subsea cables, officials said, as part of a charm offensive aimed at curbing inroads by China into a region Washington considers strategically crucial.

Biden also pledged to work with Congress to provide $200 million more in funding for projects aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change, spurring economic growth, countering illegal fishing and improving public health.

Dr. Mira Rapp-Hooper, National Security Council senior director for Oceania, told reporters in a teleconference from Washington on Friday that the conversations between Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Pacific Island leaders were “collaborative, constructive, forward looking and I think most importantly involved an incredible amount of listening by U.S. government officials”.

The leaders of Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, New Caledonia, Cook Islands, Kiribati, Niue, Samoa, Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, French Polynesia, Nauru, Tuvalu and Palau attended the summit.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manesseh Sogavare, who has built close ties with China, said on Wednesday he skipped the summit to avoid a “lecture”.

The Biden Administration had reached out to Sogavare “at the highest levels to encourage him to join us” and were disappointed he did not attend, Rapp-Hooper said.

The top diplomat for East Asia Daniel Kritenbrink said the United States was not “asking countries to choose” between development partners, and was optimistic about U.S. partnerships in the region.

Agreements will be concluded and implemented “very soon” with three Pacific Island nations covered by so-called Compacts of Free Association, said Kritenbrink in the teleconference.

The U.S. has said it will commit a total of $7.1 billion over 20 years to the Palau, Federated States of Micronesia and Marshall Islands, subject to congressional approval, and the finalisation of the Marshall Islands negotiations.

Under the agreements, due to expire on Sept. 30, the U.S. has responsibility for their defense and provides economic assistance.

Blinken held discussions with the three leaders about a plan to ensure U.S. financial obligations are met to the freely associated states if there was another shutdown of government agencies next week, Kritenbrink said.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Michael Perry)