WASHINGTON, DC: United States President Joe Biden’s administration on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) rolled out the red carpet for Pacific Island leaders in the face of rising Chinese influence in the region and said it expected a united front despite friction with the Solomon Islands.
In a first-of-a-kind summit in Washington, the US promised greater aid and diplomatic engagement on issues from maritime security to coronavirus pandemic recovery and climate change, which threatens to devastate many of the low-lying islands.
Opening two days of meetings with 12 leaders and representatives of two other nations, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed the leaders to lunch and assured them: “You can count on the United States partnering with you.”
In a veiled reference to China’s growing assertiveness around the region and across Asia, the top diplomat called for “preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific where every nation — no matter how big, no matter how small — has the right to choose its own path.”
Blinken said the summit would release a document, adding: “We’ve agreed on it, and it will give us a roadmap for the work that we’re doing in the future.”
His statement came a day after the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported that the Solomon Islands had privately communicated that it would not sign off on the statement, depriving the summit of consensus. But State Department spokesman Ned Price said discussions had made “tremendous progress.”
The Solomons in April signed a secretive security pact with China, defying warnings from the US, as well as Australia and New Zealand, which are participating in Biden’s summit as observers.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who is accused of creeping authoritarianism, told the United Nations last week his tiny country had been “vilified” and “will not be coerced into choosing sides.”
Western officials and analysts fear that Beijing would use the Solomons as a base to expand militarily into the Pacific or to pressure Taiwan, a self-governing island claimed by China.
China has stepped up its presence across the Pacific Islands, pouring in infrastructure spending, ramping up official visits, and training law enforcement.
“Perhaps, to a greater extent than any other geographic area, the Pacific Islands offer China a low-investment, high-reward opportunity to score symbolic, strategic and tactical victories in pursuit of its global agenda,” said a recent report by a study group under the US Institute of Peace.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Weng Wenbin, when asked about Biden’s summit, said Pacific Island nations were sovereign and had the right to build relations with any country.
“Growing relations with the Pacific Island countries is not about seeking a sphere of influence and does not target any third party,” he told reporters.
Biden will meet the leaders on Thursday, a personal touch that US officials hope would help reestablish Washington’s preeminence after long taken for granted in a region the US had dominated since the end of World War 2.