Pacific Island leaders welcome US pledge to triple funding to region

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong walks outside the Grand Pacific Hotel, the venue for the Pacific Islands Forum, in Suva

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said in a video address to the Pacific Islands Forum in Suva on Wednesday that if approved by Congress, U.S. funding for the Pacific Islands would triple to $60 million a year over a decade.

Some leaders in the Pacific are trying to balance China’s ambitions for trade and security ties in the region.

Harris called on countries to “align themselves” as bad actors seek to unnamedly undermine the international rules-based order.

“We recognize that the Pacific Islands have not received the diplomatic attention and support they deserve in recent years,” he said.

Pacific leaders are meeting for a four-day forum that sees climate change as a major security issue in the region, but also discusses tensions between China and the United States and Kiribati’s surprise withdrawal from the forum.

“This shows that the United States wants to come back and play an active role,” said Palau President Surangal Whipps Jr. After Haris’ speech.

“Sometimes we forget because of the distance, so this is important,” he told Reuters.

The forum will discuss China’s bid to sign trade and defense deals with 10 countries associated with China, which some members oppose.

Palau has a defense relationship with the United States, diplomatic ties with Taiwan, and economic ties with China.

“The sky’s the limit with China. That rivalry, at times, creates security concerns. We’ve had World War II and we don’t want to go through that again,” he said.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sokaware, who has signed a defense pact with China that raised US concerns, did not attend Harris’ speech because he was in a bilateral meeting, but his spokesman said Solomon Islands was represented. Solomon Islands is a party to the United States Fisheries Agreement with the Pacific Ocean.

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The United States is in the process of finalizing negotiations for a renewed Pacific Island Fisheries Treaty, which has allowed U.S. vessels to fish in exclusive economic zones for decades and is increasing support for Pacific Ocean surveillance.

Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said the fisheries agreement provides a platform for the US to “balance” strategic weaknesses in the Pacific.

Palau Fisheries Secretary Steven Victor said tourism and fishing are the country’s only sources of income, and US funding has stagnated for 20 years.

Kiribati, which also relies on fisheries after switching diplomatic ties from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, signed fisheries agreements with China a month after the forum last met face-to-face.

“China has had good relations with the Pacific Island Forum for many years,” a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry told a press conference on Monday.

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