President Joe Biden is hosting the first ever US-Pacific Island Country Summit this week, a multi-day event in Washington focused on cooperation with the United States’ countries in the Pacific region.
Biden’s effort to strengthen ties with the nations by having the summit comes amid the United States’ increased focus on countering China’s global influence, and the gathering has already challenged American efforts to engage in strategic partnerships in the region.
The summit kicked off on Wednesday when Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed leaders at the State Department and took part in events with several senior administration officials, including Secretary of State Gina Raimondo and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry.
Biden will meet with the leaders on Thursday and host them for dinner at the White House, along with taking an official family photo. A senior administration official told foreign pool reporters who cover the White House that the leaders will also on Thursday meet with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress, as well as business groups at the US Chamber of Commerce.
All Pacific Island countries have been invited. Leaders or representatives will be present from the Cook Islands, Fiji, French Polynesia, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, New Caledonia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Nauru and Vanuatu. Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General are attending as observers.
The administration also released a US-Pacific Island Strategy for the first time on Wednesday, a plan meant to compliment the earlier release of the Indo-Pacific strategy.
“The purpose of this document is to make it obviously consistent with the goals and objectives of our larger framing. But this is specifically aimed at the concerns and the objectives in the Pacific as a whole,” a senior administration official previewing the summit said.
That official said that the summit is meant to address the most “daunting challenges of the Pacific” including on climate change, health concerns, education training, jobs, challenges associated with recovery from Covid-19 and overfishing. The White House has worked closely in the last months with Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Great Britain and others on these issues, the official added.
The summit is taking place despite ongoing contention between the US and at least two of the countries involved – the Solomon Islands and the Marshall Islands.
The Marshall Islands earlier this month suspended talks to renew its security partnership with the US, citing the longstanding impact of US nuclear testing in the area some 70 years ago.
China has been expanding its ties to countries in the Pacific Ocean in recent years, and Beijing signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands in April, promising cooperation in trade and education.
Nations including the US and Australia expressed concerns following the announcement, and the Chinese government has denied that the country will set up a military base on the Solomon Islands.
Asked about reports that Solomon Islands will not sign on to an 11-point declaration at the summit, the second senior administration official said that there have been “very good consultations” and while there is more work to be done, “the overall effort has made clear that there is substantial areas of overlap with respect to what the United States wants to accomplish and do going forward and what the Pacific Island leaders expect.”