The United States and Pacific leaders have reached a nine-point Declaration on U.S.-Pacific Partnership as Washington hosts its first summit with leaders from Pacific Island nations.
The U.S. is set to announce more than $810 million in expanded programs to aid the Pacific islands as the historic summit enters its second day. The U.S. has provided upwards of $1.5 billion to support the Pacific Islands over the past decade, according to a senior administration official.
The U.S. also pledges to recognize the Cook Islands and Niue as sovereign states, following appropriate consultations. While both Cook Islands and Niue have full constitutional independence from New Zealand and act as independent countries, the U.S. considered them as self-governing territories and has not established formal diplomatic relations.
U.S. President Joe Biden will appoint a first-ever U.S. envoy to the regional Pacific Islands Forum. USAID will re-establish its mission in Suva, Fiji by September of 2023.
Washington’s plan to deepen diplomatic engagement with the Pacific comes as concerns grows about China’s expanding influence in the region.
Earlier, the Solomon Islands had indicated it would not sign a joint declaration during the high-profile gathering, just five months after it signed a security agreement with China.
“China has been seeking to establish military relationships with some of these [Pacific Islands] countries, in at least a couple of locations,” said Chris Johnstone, a senior adviser at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Johnstone said there’s an indication the Beijing government has been pursuing actual military bases in some of these countries.
Among the new initiatives listed in the U.S.-Pacific Partnership deal, the U.S. will invest $20 million to boost the Solomon Islands’ tourism and to reduce poverty in the island country.
Under the new agreement, the U.S. will launch a new trade and investment dialogue with the Pacific Island nations, enhance maritime security, as well as provide up to $3.5 million over five years to improve the region’s internet connectivity and to support cyber security.
Earlier this month, the Marshall Islands suspended talks with American officials about renewing the two countries’ strategic partnership, protesting what it perceives as the U.S. failure to address the health and environmental impacts from U.S. nuclear testing in the region during the 1940s and 1950s.
There is no specific mention of the nuclear legacy issues in the U.S.-Pacific declaration.
“While, from a U.S. perspective, ongoing negotiations on grant funding under the Compact of Free Association do not concern the nuclear issue, the Marshall Islands see the negotiations as an opportunity to press its case,” said Brian Harding, a senior expert on Southeast Asia for the U.S. Institute of Peace.
The Marshall Islands, Palau, and Micronesia are so-called Freely Associated States (FAS) that had signed treaties with the United States. Current agreements expire in September 2023 for the Marshall Islands and Micronesia, and one year later for Palau.
Under the soon-to-expire treaties known as Compacts of Free Association, the three Pacific Island nations receive grant aid and security guarantees from the U.S. government. FAS citizens can live and work in the U.S. without a visa.
In exchange, the United States has the right to build military bases in these three island nations and can deny outsider access to those countries’ waters, airspace and land.
The U.S. expects the negotiation for all three Compact agreements to be concluded by the end of this year.
Anita Powell and Richard Green contributed to this report.