CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris will announce new investments in the Pacific and the opening of two embassies when she addresses a summit on Wednesday of island nations that are increasingly coming under Chinese influence.
Harris will speak virtually at the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji. Her invitation from Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama to speak is remarkable given that the forum’s dialogue partners — including the United States, China, Britain and France — have not been invited to this year’s summit.
She will propose new embassies in Tonga and in Kiribati, a Micronesian state that split this week from the 18-nation forum in a major blow to regional harmony, a White House statement said.
Harris will also propose requesting that Congress triple funding for fisheries assistance to $60 million a year and the appointment of the first U.S. envoy to the forum.
The United States and the forum’s wealthiest nations, Australia and New Zealand, are concerned about a security pact signed this year between China and the Solomon Islands.
The United States proposes reopening the embassy it closed in the Solomon Islands in 1993.
Both the Solomon Islands and Kiribati recently shifted their diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing. Kiribati’s withdrawal from the forum is being interpreted as a deepening of China’s influence in the region.
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong on Tuesday urged forum nations to unite on their shared challenges from U.S.-China strategic competition, climate change and COVID-19.
“All the nations are seeking to navigate those challenges. And we do it best when we can do it together,” Wong said.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who arrived Monday in Fiji, described Kiribati’s withdrawal as “disappointing.” Wong said the “door remains open” to Kiribati returning.
The forum’s secretary general, Henry Puna, on Tuesday addressed “our brothers and sisters from Micronesia” and appealed for reconciliation.
“I acknowledge again the breakdown in our connections of the past two years,” the former Cook Islands prime minister said.
“My hope is that through our dialogue mechanism and the resolutions that we are working towards, you continue to find value and indeed belonging within the forum,” Puna added.
Puna was elected secretary general last year over a Micronesian candidate, deepening the rift between Kiribati and the other nations.
The Fiji Sun newspaper reported that Prime Minister Bainimarama, who is currently the forum’s chair as this year’s host, was unable to reach Kiribati President Taneti Maamau on Monday for a possible rapprochement.
Maamau did not reply to AP’s email or phone call on Tuesday.
In his opening address at the forum, Bainimarama said Pacific nations had a choice.
“The most important consideration for us this week is this: How will we, the Pacific Islands Forum, choose to navigate these challenges and opportunities as we voyage into the future?” he asked. “Will we forge ahead together? Will we take individual paths? Will we be assertive or will we leave it to others to decide our fate?”
Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles said in a speech in Washington, D.C., that Australia and the Unites States will need to do more to counter a growing number of threats in the Indo-Pacific region.
Due to the pandemic, the Suva summit will be the Pacific leaders’ first opportunity for face-to-face meetings since 2019, when the forum met in Tuvalu.
In May, China fell short on a bold plan to have 10 Pacific nations endorse a sweeping new agreement covering everything from security to fisheries as some in the region expressed deep concerns. But there were plenty of smaller wins for Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during his island-hopping tour of the region, including bilateral agreements.
Wang was in Fiji on May 30 to co-host a key meeting with the foreign ministers from the 10 island nations. At an unusual news conference afterward, Wang and Bainimarama spoke for about 30 minutes and then abruptly left the stage as reporters tried to shout out questions. That left many details of what transpired at the meeting unanswered, but it was clear the nations hadn’t endorsed China’s plan.
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