US boosts South Pacific aid and diplomacy as China expands influence

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A US presidential move to boost US support in the South Pacific is a reaction to China’s growing influence in the vast swath of tropical islands that have historically been under Western influence, experts say.

The spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry responded positively to the American initiatives on Wednesday, but also issued a warning.

“We are happy to see that Pacific island countries are receiving more support for their development and revitalization from countries willing to do so,” ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told a press briefing. planned in Beijing. “That has always been China’s position. At the same time, we believe that all countries, when pursuing cooperation with Pacific island countries, should not target third parties or harm their interests.

The small, often poor archipelago countries of the Pacific are largely dependent on aid and trade from the larger countries.

Washington intends to establish embassies in South Pacific countries Kiribati and Tonga, the White House said in a statement on Tuesday. US President Joe Biden’s office has said it is ready to ask Congress for $60 million a year for the next decade, roughly triple current levels, to support maritime economic development.

The White House further intends to return the U.S. Peace Corps to Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu, citing progress toward reestablishing a U.S. Agency for International Development regional mission to the Pacific in Fiji.

At the Pacific Islands Forum in Suva, Fiji on Wednesday, US Vice President Kamala Harris met virtually with Pacific Island leaders to announce the new commitments. These commitments will “deepen the U.S. partnership with the region,” according to the Biden administration. The forum is a 51-year-old economic and military bloc spanning 18 states.

The return of the Peace Corps to the South Pacific, along with plans for embassies and expanding maritime security assistance, count as good news, said Gregory Poling, director of the Initiative for maritime transparency in Asia from the Washington-based Center for Strategy and International. Studies.

“Skeptics here and in the Pacific Islands might say this all should have happened 10 years ago, and we certainly heard about it during the Obama and Trump administrations,” Poling said. “But China’s activity in the region has finally woken up Washington to the fact that it [the U.S.] can no longer take its place or that of its allies in the Pacific Islands for granted.

Chinese influence

Beijing signaled its intentions in the South Pacific when it launched the China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum in 2006. China calls the forum, which has been held three times, its trade and economic dialogue. at the highest level with the South Pacific.

Over the past year, China has shown growing interest in the region, where it seeks to expand its naval influence and longstanding commercial interests, particularly in fishing, experts told VOA.

Beijing signed a security deal with the Solomon Islands in April and reached 52 “cooperation” agreements after its foreign minister held talks with leaders of 17 South Pacific countries in May and June.

Old and New American Role

Washington influenced the South Pacific immediately after World War II. Some Pacific islands are US territories and others are close diplomatic allies. The US government conducted 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958, sending fallout across the country.

Former US President Barack Obama responded to China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific with his “pivot to Asia” policy in 2011, but focused more on Asia than the Pacific, said Tarcisius Kabutulaka, associate professor of Pacific Island studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. At this point, “it would be hard to see what Washington, DC is doing without considering the Chinese factor,” Kabutulaka said.

In March, the State Department announced that the United States was renegotiating its covenants of free association with Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia. The pacts are intended to give the three South Pacific nations special economic and military protections.

Australia and New Zealand, both allies of the United States, are also the main economic benefactors of the South Pacific. The US government joined Australia, Britain, Japan and New Zealand last month in establishing a partnership called the Blue Pacific Partners that further targets interests in the South Pacific. .

China urges the United States to renew these pacts as they expire from next year, Kabutulaka said.

South Pacific countries will eventually benefit, without political risk, by accepting overtures from China and the United States, said Satu Limaye, vice president of the East-West Center research organization in Honolulu.

“Some of the smaller states may have both bureaucratic and capacity issues, but they won’t. [be] so inundated with absorptive capacity issues that they won’t be able to handle the relationships,” Limaye said.

Limaye said Biden’s plans for the Pacific “will take time” to materialize as officials seek congressional approval, find money and embassies.

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