Biden announces Pacific Island summit date amid China competition

A statement said US President Joe Biden would welcome Pacific Island leaders to the White House on Sept 28-29. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - US President Joe Biden will welcome Pacific Island leaders on Sept 28-29 for a first-of-a-kind summit, the White House said Friday, as China makes inroads in a region long tied to Washington.

Taking place at the White House, the first US-Pacific Island Country summit will advance "a free and open Indo-Pacific," a statement said, employing the veiled US phrase for preventing China from dominating Asia.

Mr Biden will also speak to the leaders on climate change - an existential issue for the islands - as well as maritime security and fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, the statement said.

"The summit will demonstrate the United States' deep and enduring partnership with Pacific Island countries and the Pacific region that is underpinned by shared history, values and people-to-people ties," it said.

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman had announced plans for the summit while visiting Tonga last month without giving the exact dates.

The South Pacific, for decades off the radar in geopolitics, has increasingly drawn in the United States after China signed a security deal with the Solomon Islands in April and unsuccessfully sought a larger agreement with the region.

The United States, as well as ally Australia, fears that the Solomon Islands - which recently prohibited the US Coast Guard from refuelling - will provide a military foothold for an increasingly assertive China, despite denials from the tiny country's leader.

Vice-President Kamala Harris, in a virtual address to a Pacific Islands summit in July, announced US$600 million (S$840.6 million) in new funding and plans for the United States to open new embassies in Tonga and Kiribati.

The White House summit will come days after the UN General Assembly in New York where climate will be high on the agenda.

After years of political deadlock in Washington, Mr Biden last month secured a sweeping package to combat climate change in the world's largest economy including through a push away from fossil fuel-run cars.

Many South Pacific islands sit only a few feet above sea level and are already feeling the impact of climate change, with melting ice expected to increase flooding or submerge low-lying areas. AFP

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