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U.S. to open new embassies, boost aid in Pacific as China’s sway grows

The Tarawa atoll, in the central Pacific nation of Kiribati, in 2004. The United States has pledged to open an embassy in Kiribati as part of an increased diplomatic presence in the region. (Richard Vogel/AP)

SYDNEY — The United States said Tuesday it would expand its diplomatic presence in the Pacific, as it seeks to counter the growing influence of China in a region of intensifying great-power rivalry.

The new efforts, which will be announced by Vice President Harris during a virtual address to leaders at the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in Fiji, will include two additional U.S. embassies and a tripling of some aid, among other measures.

The diplomatic push comes amid concerns that China has supplanted the United States as the friend of choice for some Pacific island nations. China struck a security agreement with the Solomon Islands in April despite American objections. And the Chinese foreign minister recently signed several other bilateral agreements during an eight-country tour of the region.

China signs security deal with Solomon Islands, alarming neighbors

The Biden administration has sought to shift American focus from the Middle East to Asia. It has withdrawn U.S. troops from Afghanistan, ramped up the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with Japan, Australia and India, and launched the AUKUS pact with Britain and Australia, which, like the Quad, is seen as a countermeasure to China’s growing military assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific.

Yet China’s security agreement with the Solomon Islands — the site of a key American military victory at Guadalcanal during World War II — appeared to catch the United States and its close regional allies, Australia and New Zealand, by surprise.

The new diplomatic initiatives come as the United States tries to restore some of its influence in the region.

“We are significantly stepping up our game in the Pacific islands,” said a senior administration official who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity ahead of the vice president’s PIF appearance. The official said the United States is not asking Pacific island nations to choose between it and China.

“We are focusing on our own engagement and our own interests and our own support,” the official said. “Of course contrasts [with China] will be made, and we would like to think that contrast looks favorably on us, where we’ve been a responsible security actor in the region, in fact, in the entire Indo-Pacific, for many decades and have helped to preserve a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Among the measures Harris will announce to Pacific leaders will be new U.S. embassies in Kiribati and Tonga. In 2019, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands both switched their diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China, underscoring the inroads Beijing has made in the region.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited both countries during his Pacific tour in late May and signed bilateral agreements with each.

Kiribati announced this week that it was withdrawing from the PIF, purportedly over a leadership dispute, although an opposition leader told the Guardian the withdrawal was the result of Chinese pressure. China has denied that.

The U.S. official said that the Biden administration was “concerned” by Kiribati’s withdrawal but that discussions over the issue are ongoing.

Harris will also announce that the administration aims to triple funding for economic development and ocean resilience in the region to $60 million a year for the next decade, although Congress will have to approve the increase. Some of the funds would go toward combating the impact of climate change on the Pacific island nations, which are among the world’s most vulnerable.

The United States will also appoint its first envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum, which, despite infighting, has emerged as a key regional bloc. In a sign of the region’s growing geopolitical importance, the Biden administration will also design and release its first national strategy specifically devoted to the Pacific islands.

Harris will announce the return of the Peace Corps to Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu after volunteers were withdrawn during the pandemic. The Biden administration is also exploring expanding the program to additional Pacific island countries.

“We are expanding our footprint and making sure we have the people and apparatus in place to deepen our cooperation on a day-to-day basis and to deliver concrete results,” the senior administration official said.

China fails on Pacific pact, but still seeks to boost regional influence

But the Solomon Islands show the limitations of such outreach. In February, the Biden administration announced it would reopen its long-shuttered embassy in the nation’s capital, Honiara, only for China to announce its security agreement two months later.

That agreement stirred fears of a Chinese military base about 1,000 miles from Australian shores, though China and the Solomon Islands denied that would happen. China recently failed in an attempt to strike a similar but far broader security agreement with 10 Pacific island countries, but Beijing has suggested it will try again.

Australia’s recently elected center-left Labor government has also promised to boost diplomacy, aid and military ties to Pacific island nations to counter Beijing’s growing influence.

Despite a slight easing of tensions between the two countries, highlighted by the first ministerial meetings in three years, China has yet to lift punishing tariffs on Australia.

During a visit to Washington this week, Richard Marles, the Australian defense minister and deputy prime minister, said the United States and Australia will need to increase their presence in the Indo-Pacific, warning that a failure to maintain a balance of power could be “catastrophic.”

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