Richard Butler | Exclusive Report by Christine Rovoi of STUFF CO NZ | FEB 16th, 2023
A visit by United States President Joe Biden to the Pacific this year will significantly push back against China’s inroads in the region, experts say. On Tuesday, Micronesian leaders announced a possible summit with Biden in the Pacific.
In a communiqué released at the 21st Micronesian Presidents’ Summit, the leaders expressed their “full support and co-operation to ensure the success of this visit”.
In September, Biden hosted a Pacific summit at the White House and at that meeting, he was invited to visit the region. Forum leaders will meet in Fiji on February 24, and it’s unclear if Biden has been invited to this summit.
The White House said there was no travel to the Pacific by Biden to announce, yet. He is expected to travel to Australia in May this year to attend the Quad summit of the US, India, Australia and Japan.
Officially called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the Quad nations have been working together to counterbalance Chinese diplomatic and military interests in the Indo-Pacific region.
The leaders of Kiribati, Palau, Nauru, Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia met in Pohnpei on Monday to discuss Biden’s visit, Kiribati’s return to the Pacific Islands Forum and the Suva Agreement – among other things.
“We welcome President Biden’s planned visit for the Leaders Summit in the Pacific region and expressed our full support and co-operation to ensure the success of this visit,” they said in a statement.
Pacific security expert Justin Burke said a visit from Biden to the Pacific would be “highly significant”.
Burke, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said the White House should consider the Pacific invitation seriously.
”No one should underestimate the diplomatic benefit of the personal touch in this region,” he said.
The US has stepped up its diplomacy and aid to the Pacific since China struck a security deal with the Solomon Islands early last year. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had attempted but failed to forge a wider security and trade pact with 10 island nations during his visit to the region in May.
On February 2 this year, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the reopening of its embassy in the Solomons capital Honiara, after a 30-year absence.
Last week, the US signed a memorandum of understanding with FSM, which the State Department said reflected a “shared understanding on future US assistance to the Pacific island country that Washington is anxious to keep out of China’s orbit”.
Washington earlier signed memorandums of understanding on future assistance with Palau and the Marshall Islands, giving the US access to the region for defence purposes.
US officials had reportedly warned Biden in December that America’s submarine-building capacity could hit a “breaking point” if the US also took on contracts for Australia’s nuclear-powered subs.
In January, following the “fruitful, positive and successful bilateral meeting” with Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, the Kiribati government said it would rejoin the Forum family this year”.
Last July, President Taneti Maamau announced Kiribati was withdrawing its support of forum because it was not happy with the leadership the peak regional diplomatic body.
FSM President and Micronesian summit chair David Panuelo said in a statement they had endorsed a summit with Biden in the Pacific.
He said the September summit at the White House was “an unambiguous success and it will be of instrumental importance for the Pacific to ensure the United States continues to re-engage with our Blue Pacific Continent”.
The Palikir Communique also endorsed Nauru’s candidacy for the secretary-general of the forum in 2024. The leaders agreed the forum sub-region office for the north Pacific will now be based in Kiribati, and the Pacific Ocean Commissioner’s office in Palau – with Marshalls’ candidate for POC.
They also agreed that FSM hosts a “permanent secretariat of the Micronesian Presidents’ Summit with an elevated status”. The new MPS chair is from FSM, taking over from Nauru.
The Palikir Communique, ‘Paddling together for a stronger Micronesia’, was signed by Maamau, Panuelo, Surangel Whipps Jr of Palau and Russ Joseph Kun from Nauru. Marshalls’ Foreign Minister Kitlang Kabua signed on behalf of president David Kabua.