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US unveils new Pacific strategy to counter China

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
US Vice-President Kamala Harris speaks via video-link to the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in Suva, Fiji, on July 13, 2022. (Photo by AFP)

The US has launched yet another major push in the Asia Pacific aimed at countering China’s growing influence in the region, with Vice President Kamala Harris vowing new commitments to the area.

“We recognize that in recent years, the Pacific Islands may not have received the diplomatic attention and support that you deserve,” Harris said during a virtual address on Wednesday to the Pacific Island Forum summit in Fiji.

“We are going to change that,” she pledged, insisting that the US wanted to “significantly deepen our presence in the Pacific region.”

Harris also declared the US would appoint a designated Pacific Islands Forum envoy to further expand its diplomatic footprint across the region, as well as new embassies in the tiny island nations of Kiribati and Tonga, in addition to the US Embassy in the Solomon Islands, which is already in the process of reopening.

Washington is joining the UK-affiliated governments of Australia and New Zealand in urgently expanding ties with Pacific Island nations amid Beijing’s escalating influence across the strategically significant region close to its territory.

Regional leaders and diplomats have been meeting in Suva since Monday. The four-day US-led summit – which has brought Fiji to purportedly discuss ways to draw more international support for development and climate change – has, however, been overshadowed by Kiribati earlier withdrawing from the regional group.

The Micronesian country reportedly left the forum on the eve of the summit over a leadership dispute within the bloc, threatening to sideline climate at the summit.

China’s Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, emphasized on Monday that Beijing had nothing to do with Kiribati withdrawing from the Pacific Islands in face of Western allegations to the contrary.

“For years, China and the Pacific Island Forum have had sound cooperative relations,” said the ministry’s spokesman Wang Wenbin during a regular press briefing. “China does not interfere in the internal affairs of Pacific Islands countries and hopes to see greater solidarity and closer cooperation among PICs for common development.”

The US and Australia expressed shock in April after the signing of a security agreement between the Solomon Islands and China, viewing the development as a major diplomatic victory for Beijing, marking its first such deal in the Pacific.

The US vice president on Wednesday also announced plans to increase annual funding for projects in the Pacific to $60 million, including purportedly for climate resilience infrastructure, combating illegal fishing, and investing in marine conservation. The new funding is subject to approval by the US Congress.

During her speech, Harris further unveiled plans to re-establish a US Agency for International Development outpost in Fiji and bring back Peace Corps volunteers to several countries.

The White House said the new agreement would come under the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Fiji in May joined the US in a wide-ranging Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, making it the first Pacific Island nation to do so.

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