As Washington attempts to combat China’s growing influence in the region, President Joe Biden reiterated US support for Pacific Island nations fighting Covid-19 and climate crisis.
Biden gave a video message to the forum’s opening, reminding leaders about US vaccine donations to developing nations, “without strings”.
He also promised to be a leader in fighting climate change. “The Pacific Island nations are well aware that mitigating the worst effects of climate changes will save lives.
This is the first occasion that a US president has addressed this forum, which is now 50 years old.
He said, “The United States is proud to be a Pacific power” and that he would continue to be an active and engaged partner in the region as well as a friend to all of his countries.
“A free and open Indo-Pacific will be vital for each of our countries’ security, prosperity, and all our futures.”
Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama greeted Biden’s comments and thanked him “for bringing America back to the right side” of climate history.
He said that there must be no excuses for countries not setting 2050 net zero goals.
Australia’s regional power has not made such a commitment to date, much to the dismay of Pacific islands located a few feet above the sea level.
The forum’s eve saw the meeting of Lloyd Austin, the Pentagon chief, and Surangel Whipps the president of Palau, to renew the US commitment to defense of the island nation.
According to John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesperson, the pair reached an agreement on the strategic significance of the Pacific Islands region and the “critical function” of US investments and presence in Palau.
The United States is now facing dramatically increased Chinese military capabilities and has adopted a model that involves cycling assets throughout the region, rather than large bases. This makes them harder to target.
China sought to increase its influence in the region through large infrastructure projects on some Pacific islands. This has led to concerns about the size of the financial debts to Beijing.
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Samoa’s plans for a major port development financed by China are now in doubt after Fiame Naomi Mata’afa was elected prime minister last month, suggesting that it would increase the island’s debt.
Fiji-based Pacific Islands Forum gathers Australia, Fiji and the Federated State of Micronesia. Kiribati is Nauru, New Caledonia. New Zealand, Niue. Palau. Papua New Guinea. Samoa. Solomon Islands. Tonga. Tuvalu.