Biden seeks to win over Pacific leaders as Solomon Islands turns back on talks

President Joe Biden will host Pacific leaders at the White House this week as the US seeks to bolster its engagement with the nations amid growing concern about China’s presence in the region.

The US is expected to offer funding for infrastructure and more maritime cooperation, and new embassies for Cook Islands and Nuie. But the talks have already suffered a setback as Solomon Islands prime minister Manasseh Sogavare, now closely aligned with Beijing, will not attend.

“We’re disappointed that he’s chosen not to come to this very special summit,” a White House official said.

Leaders from the 18-member Pacific Island Forum are expected to push for more support for climate change among other matters at the talks, to be held at the White House on Monday and Tuesday.

Biden hosted a first summit with 14 Pacific island nations a year ago at which his administration promised to work harder with allies and partners to address their needs.

There is “no question that there is some role that the PRC [China] has played in all this …. its assertiveness and influence, including in this region, has been a factor that requires us to sustain our strategic focus,” AFP reported, citing a senior White House official on condition of anonymity.

Dr Meg Keen, director of the Pacific Islands program at the Lowy Institute, described the summit as “historic” and comes after Biden pulled out of a visit to Papua New Guinea earlier this year to focus on debt ceiling negotiations.

“Given there has been a long absence the US has been working quite quickly to make up lost ground,” Keen said.

“They have got back into the region. The region is waiting to see if the big commitments are going to be delivered.”

During the 2022 summit the US announced more than $800m in assistance to island states. The White House said in a statement the summit will reaffirm the US commitment to shared regional priorities and cooperation on key issues including climate change and maritime security.

Tonga prime minister Siaosi Sovaleni told reporters the upcoming meeting was “an opportunity for us to share our concerns.”

In a high-level meeting in New York last week ahead of the summit, Sovaleni said Tonga’s top priorities were climate change and oceans, and that he would seek new investors to support these challenges.

“The urgency for change is evident,” Sovaleni said.

Sovaleni is expected to discuss how the US can support better access to climate finance and improved oceans security and management.

The Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum Henry Puna told an event in New York last week that he hoped the summit would bring concrete actions on issues including climate change.

Leaders at the US-Pacific Island Country summit in September 2022.
Leaders at the US-Pacific Island Country summit in September 2022. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Puna said the Pacific island region had gone from a period of strategic neglect just a decade ago to become a subject of strategic interest, competition and “manipulation” today – a reference to the geopolitical rivalry for influence in the region between the US and China.

China signed a security pact with Solomon Islands last year, prompting concern in the US and Australia about Beijing’s ambitions in the region. At the same time, Washington has been stepping up its engagement with the Pacific, with new embassies and high-level visits. Earlier this year the US reopened its embassy in Solomon Islands after a 30-year absence. It also opened an embassy in Tonga and plans one for Vanuatu.

Reuters and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report