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Joe Biden to meet Pacific Island nations as leaders seek to 'capitalise' on US-China attention

A second summit between US President Joe Biden and Pacific Island nations is slated to take place next week in Washington, a top official at an intergovernmental group from the region announced on Monday, underscoring the outsize influence wielded by the small but geopolitically vital countries of Oceania.

"Currently our senior officials are in negotiations with Washington over the outcomes that we would like to see when we meet with President Biden next week," said Henry Puna, secretary general of the Pacific Island Forum, during an event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in New York.

Puna expressed hope "that those outcomes will translate into concrete actions moving forward" because the Pacific region faced several challenges apart from climate change such as economic recovery following the coronavirus pandemic.

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"Having small economies, we've been hit really hard with the border closures," he said. But it is something that we're very much looking forward to engaging with the US. And I'm sure that there will be very positive outcomes from our engagement."

Henry Puna, a former Cook Islands prime minister, is secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum. Photo: Reuters alt=Henry Puna, a former Cook Islands prime minister, is secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum. Photo: Reuters>

Acknowledging an increasingly polarised world dominated by geopolitical competition between the US and China, Puna observed that a period of "strategic neglect" for the Pacific Island region had been replaced by "strategic manipulation".

"We must realise that the strategic interest and attention we enjoy today will not last forever," he said. "We must capitalise on it in a manner that will ensure sustainable gains for our region and for our people, for decades to come."

Biden hosted Washington's first summit involving leaders from more than a dozen Pacific Island nations and territories in September last year.

The event served as a high-profile counterpoint to Beijing's ambitions in the region after reports surfaced of a security pact between China and the Solomon Islands.

That meeting concluded with the US pledging more than US$800 million on priorities like climate change, fishing disputes and maritime security as well as expanding its diplomatic presence across the region.

Though Washington has opened embassies in the island nations of Tonga, Kiribati and the Solomons, the promised funds have yet to come as the US Congress haggles over federal spending.

Asked about the Solomons' security deal with China, Puna said he respected the sovereign country's choices on "what is in their best national interest", drawing a comparison to Australia joining Aukus, a security alliance between Australia, Britain and the US widely viewed as meant to counter China in the Indo-Pacific.

"I can say the same for what Australia has done with Aukus because they think it's in their best interest," he added.

As for what role Pacific island nations could play in the event of a conflict between the US and China over Taiwan - the self-ruled island that Beijing has vowed eventually to reunite with the mainland, by force if necessary - Puna said the Pacific Ocean got its name because "we are the ocean of peace".

"Our overriding principle is that we want to be friends to all and enemies to none."

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2023 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2023. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.