US pledges more high-level engagement with Pacific islands amid China push

Kurt Campbell attends the China Development Forum in Beijing, China, March 23, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – White House Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell said on Thursday he expects more high-ranking U.S. officials to visit Pacific island nations as Washington ramps up its involvement in confronting China in the strategically important region.

Campbell said the United States needs more diplomatic facilities across the region, and more contacts with Pacific island nations that “sometimes receive less attention.”

“You’re going to see more and more senior cabinet-level officials heading to the Pacific… realizing that nothing really replaces diplomatic shoes on the ground,” he told the Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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The Biden administration has pledged to allocate more resources to the Indo-Pacific region as China seeks to strengthen economic, military and police ties with Pacific island nations hungry for foreign investment.

Beijing’s growing influence has been highlighted by its security pact with the Solomon Islands this year, a move that has raised concerns in Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Read more

“Sovereignty is central to how we view the Pacific in general. Any initiative that would compromise or question that sovereignty, I think we would have concerns about it,” Campbell said, without referring to China.

Washington said it would speed up the opening of an embassy in the Solomon Islands, which it announced earlier this year when Secretary of State Anthony Blinken visited Fiji, the first by a top US diplomat there in four decades. Read more

Campbell said he envisions Fiji as one of the US “hubs” for engagement.

“Our motto would be nothing in the Pacific without the Pacific … We do not take these bonds for granted,” he said, acknowledging perceptions that Washington has not always adequately taken the needs of islanders into account.

Areas where Pacific islands in particular need help include dealing with climate change and tackling illegal fishing, said Monica Medina, who is responsible for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs at the US State Department.

“We know we have a lot, a lot of work to do,” she said.

Fiji’s ambassador to the United Nations, Satyendra Prasad, said at the CSIS event that the islands needed “great predictability” and not a “hiatus” in relations with Washington.

“The Pacific peoples and their governments will welcome an enduring partnership with the United States that exists for the long term,” he said.

Samoa’s envoy to the United Nations said there was a need to see if a US treaty with the Pacific Ocean covering tuna could be expanded into a broader trade agreement.

“I think that’s already under consideration,” said Fatomanava-o-Opollo III by Paulelli Lotero. “This is something that will be very useful.”

Washington can also help by supporting the UN-led Multidimensional Vulnerability Index to help island nations obtain concessional financing.

In an apparent reference to China’s allure, Lotero said politicians have a responsibility to their people.

“If you ask a specific country and they can’t help you, you have a choice of saying no, we won’t provide this service to people; or you go to another country that might not be the traditional partner, and you say to them, Can you help us?” he said.

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Additional reporting by David Bronstrom, Michael Martina and Eric Beach in Washington Editing by Richard Boleyn and Matthew Lewis

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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