US pledges higher-level engagement with Pacific islands as part of Chinese push

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

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WASHINGTON, June 23 (Reuters) – White House Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell said on Thursday he expected more top U.S. officials to visit Pacific island nations as Washington is stepping up its engagement to counter China in this strategically important region.

Campbell said the United States needs more diplomatic facilities in the region and more contact with Pacific island countries that “sometimes get less attention.”

“You’ll see more senior cabinet-level officials going to the Pacific … recognizing that nothing really replaces diplomatic boots in the field,” he told the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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

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

“Sovereignty is central to our overall vision for the Pacific. Any initiative that compromises or challenges that sovereignty, I think we would have concerns,” Campbell said, without referring to China.

Washington has said it will expedite the opening of an embassy in the Solomon Islands, announced earlier this year when Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Fiji, the first trip by the top US diplomat in four decades. Read more

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

“Our mantra will be nothing in the Pacific without the Pacific…we don’t take these ties for granted,” he said, acknowledging perceptions that Washington had not always sufficiently considered the needs of islanders.

Monica Medina, head of oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs at the US State Department, said areas where the Pacific Islands particularly needed help included tackling climate change and tackling fishing. illegal.

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

Fiji’s ambassador to the UN, Satyendra Prasad, told the CSIS event that the islands needed “great predictability” and no “stop-start” in their dealings with Washington.

“The peoples of the Pacific and their governments would welcome an enduring partnership with the United States that is there for the long haul,” he said.

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

“I think this is already under consideration,” said Fatumanava-o-Upolu III Pa’olelei Luteru. “It’s something that would be very helpful.”

Washington could also help by supporting the UN-piloted Multidimensional Vulnerability Index to help island nations access concessional finance.

In apparent reference to the pull of China, Luteru said politicians have a responsibility to their people.

“If…you ask a particular country and they are not able to help you, then you have a choice to say no, we are not going to provide this service to people; or you go to another country that may not be the traditional partner, and you say to them, can you help us?” he said.

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Reporting by David Brunnstrom, Michael Martina and Eric Beech in Washington Editing by Richard Pullin and Matthew Lewis

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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