Sunday, June 23, 2024

Despite Biden's absence, US makes inroads with Pacific Islands – The Diplomat



Despite his disappointment over US President Joe Biden’s decision to cancel his trip to Papua New Guinea, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken attended the meetings in his stead in Port Moresby. While the symbolism of the first visit to the Pacific islands by a US president was deeply missed, the visit still marked significant progress for the US partnership in the region.

Among key deliverables, the United States on Monday signed a new security accord with Papua New Guinea, seen as a significant victory in the competition with China for strategic influence.

Papua New Guinea’s position just north of Australia makes it strategically important. It was the site of fierce battles during World War II, and with a population of around 10 million people, it is the most populous Pacific island nation.

The State Department said the new agreement provides a framework to improve security cooperation, enhance the capability of Papua New Guinea’s defense force and help enhance regional stability. The full agreement will be made public when politicians from both countries have had an opportunity for input, possibly in a few months.


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“The work we’re doing to try to shape the future couldn’t be more important, couldn’t be more timely,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters. “We are investing deeply in the Indo-Pacific because the future of our planet is being written here. Papua New Guinea is playing an important role in shaping that future.

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Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape said the agreement is mutually beneficial and “secures our national interests” in “becoming a stronger economy in this part of the world”.

But the agreement sparked student protests in LA, the second largest city. And many in the Pacific are concerned about the growing militarization of the region.

Naomi Kipoi, a 17-year-old student, said she was opposed to the security agreement because she felt it meant the United States could enter her country whenever it wanted without permission. He said that China has helped his country a lot by building roads and funding schools.


“The US didn’t help us with aid and other things,” Kipoi said. “They’re just trying to get the agreement signed.”

Last year, the nearby Solomon Islands signed its own security accord with China, a move that raised alarm across the Pacific. Washington has increased its focus on the Pacific, opening embassies in the Solomon Islands and Tonga, reviving the Peace Corps’ volunteer efforts, and encouraging more business investment.

But some have questioned how trustworthy the United States is in the Pacific, especially after Biden canceled his plan to make a historic stop in Papua New Guinea to sign the treaty. Biden canceled trips to Papua New Guinea and Australia to focus on debt ceiling talks at home.

Blinken traveled in place of Biden, who arrived in Papua New Guinea early Monday. In response to news of Blinken’s impending visit, China warned against starting a “geopolitical game” in the region.

Along with the defense deal, the United States also signed a maritime agreement with Papua New Guinea, allowing the US Coast Guard to partner with the Pacific nation to combat illegal fishing and drug trafficking. Will give

Also in Papua New Guinea, Blinken will oversee the signing ceremony for the new Compact of Free Association (COFA) with Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM).

COFA with Palau “will ensure that this partnership continues to benefit our people, including tackling the climate crisis, promoting sustainable economic growth, strengthening our security,” Blinken said Remarks at the signing ceremony on Monday.

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“These same goals animate the agreement we will sign with the Federated States of Micronesia [on Tuesday] And one that we are working hard to finalize with the Republic of the Marshall Islands,” he said.

As part of the new agreements, Blinken said the United States would provide $7.1 billion in aid to COFA partners over the next 20 years.

The United States has had COFAs with the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), FSM, and Palau since the mid-1980s, when the then American “Trust Territories” gained independence. All three COFAs were originally scheduled to expire next year (RMI and FSM by the end of this year, and Palau in 2024) before the signing of fresh agreements with Palau on Monday and FSM on Tuesday.


Negotiations are still ongoing with RMI on COFA renewal due to the toxic (literally and figuratively) legacy of US nuclear tests within the islands.

The agreements give the United States exclusive rights to deploy military assets within the land and territorial waters of its COFA partners. The US is planning to set up a new military base in the FSM, while Palau has also expressed willingness to host military facilities. In return, Washington committed to providing permanent financial support to its COFA partners as well as allowing its citizens to live and work freely in the United States.

The three Pacific island countries have an important geostrategic location north of Papua New Guinea and east of the Philippines – placing them among the closest Pacific island countries to Taiwan.


Blinken’s visit to Papua New Guinea coincided with a visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was hosting a meeting with Pacific island leaders to discuss ways for better cooperation. Biden was to capitalize on that opportunity to meet with leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum; Instead, Blinken attended that meeting in the President’s place. To calm the gloom, Blinken briefed the assembled Pacific Island leaders “A formal invitation from the President to Pacific leaders to return to Washington for a second summit this fall to continue dialogue and develop important new initiatives for our collective future.”

In addition to the first US-Pacific Islands Country Summit to be held in Washington in September 2022, Blinken made a rare visit to Fiji in February 2022. In his remarks to PIF leaders on Monday, Blinken highlighted those efforts and more:

Last year, we inaugurated our new embassy building here in Papua New Guinea… We recently opened two new embassies in the Solomon Islands and Tonga. We are working to do the same in Kiribati, Vanuatu. We sent our first American envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum, Ambassador Frankie Reed … America’s future is here in the Pacific.

But it was a bit difficult to match the end of Blinken’s comments – “to ensure that the United States is a strong, reliable, effective partner in the Pacific Islands” – with the opening of his speech, where he was supposed to address the elephant. In the room: “President Biden was very much looking forward to being here and addressing the leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum ahead of the events in Washington.”