By David Brunnstrom, Alexandra Alper and Michael Martina
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States began a first-of-its-kind summit with Pacific island leaders on Wednesday, saying they had agreed a partnership for the future and holding out the prospect of “big dollar” help to a region where it hopes to stem China’s expanding influence.
Leaders from 12 Pacific island states were expected to take part in a two-day summit in Washington, with two more sending representatives, and Australia and New Zealand attending as observers.
White House Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell said last week the summit would focus on issues such as climate change and health. Washington and its allies want to boost maritime security and island states’ communications links with countries like Japan, Australia and India, he said.
It is the first time the United States has hosted so many leaders of a region it has considered it maritime backyard since World War Two, but into which China has been making steady advances. Some of the nations have complained about being caught in the middle of the superpowers’ battle for influence.
The leaders will be feted around Washington, including at the State Department, the U.S. Congress, Coast Guard headquarters, by business leaders, and at the White House by President Joe Biden. On Wednesday, Washington also will unveil a new strategy for the Pacific, a senior Biden administration official told reporters.
Addressing an opening session at the State Department, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the two sides had agreed “a declaration of partnership between the U.S. and the Pacific.”
Holding up a document, he said it showed the United States and the Pacific have a “shared vision for the future and a determination to build that future together.”
Blinken said the shared vision “recognizes that only by working together can we actually tackle the biggest challenges of our time, that confront all of our citizens.”
He cited the climate crisis, health emergencies, promoting economic opportunity, and preserving a “free and open Indo-Pacific” where every nation regardless of size “has the right to choose its own path.”
SOLOMON ISLANDS TIES TO CHINA
The Solomon Islands earlier told nations invited to the summit it will not sign the declaration under discussion, according to a note seen by Reuters, prompting further concern over its ties to China.
At a regular news briefing after Blinken spoke, State Department spokesperson Ned Price declined to say whether the agreement had been signed or whether the Solomons had agreed to it, but said “we’ve been in a position to make tremendous progress.”
Two sources familiar with the talks said they understood the document had yet to be signed and it was unclear if it would be at the summit given that not all leaders were present.
Strategic competition in the Pacific intensified dramatically this year after China signed a security agreement with the Solomons, prompting warnings of militarization of the region.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Damukana Sogavare has repeatedly appeared to snub the United States, heightening Washington’s concerns.
The official who briefed journalists acknowledged that Washington had not paid the Pacific enough attention over the years and had been working with allied and partner countries “to add more resources, more capacity, more diplomatic engagement.”
“We will have big dollar numbers,” he said, adding that some new initiatives would be announced on Wednesday and others on Thursday.
Blinken pledged $4.8 million dollars for a program, called Resilient Blue Economies, to support sustainable fisheries, agriculture and tourism.
U.S. CLIMATE ENVOY
Wednesday’s talks included a session hosted by U.S. special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry, who praised Pacific island leaders for a more ambitious global climate target than agreed at the 2015 Paris climate summit.
“It really came from your persistence and commitment, so I want to thank you for that. It made a difference to the world,” he said.
A source familiar with the discussions said the White House was working with the private sector to roll out an agreement on undersea cables for the region, calling it “a reaction to China’s diplomacy and military expansion.”
The Pacific countries are keen for greater connectivity amongst themselves and with allies, however they have repeatedly stressed that Washington should accept their priorities, making climate change – not superpower competition – the most urgent security task.
Micronesian President David Panuelo said on Tuesday participants had been working on a summit declaration that would cover five themes, including human-centered development, tackling climate change, geopolitics and security of the Pacific region and more broadly, as well as commerce and industry and trade ties.
However, attempts to reach a final text ran into problems this week when during a call with Pacific islands ambassadors, the State Department objected to language agreed to by the island countries that the United States address the Marshall Islands nuclear issue, three sources, including a Pacific island diplomat, told Reuters.
Speaking at Georgetown University, Panuelo said: “Every country will have to do what’s in their best interests, but we call on the superpowers when they come in and talk to the Pacific Islands countries that they keep with us on the terms of the issues that are most important for our region.”
The second U.S. official said leaders from the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Samoa, Tuvalu, Tonga, Fiji, Cook Islands, French Polynesia and New Caledonia would attend, with Vanuatu and Nauru sending representatives.
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