WASHINGTON (AFP) – President Joe Biden and his government rolled out the red carpet for the leaders of tiny Pacific island countries yesterday in what a United States (US) official called an “unprecedented” diplomatic effort.
Officials said leaders from across the ocean’s remote but strategic archipelagos will attend, as well as representatives from two French territories and the US territory of Guam.
Events began yesterday and culminate with an address by Biden today and dinner at the White House. The invitees will meet everyone from Cabinet secretaries to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the head of the US Coast Guard, which maintains an important security presence in the Pacific.
“We’ve done meetings like this with the Pacific leaders before – they’ve normally been about an hour long in Hawaii or elsewhere,” a senior US official said. “We’ve never done anything like this. This is unprecedented.” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden would discuss “our broadening and deepened cooperation on key issues such as climate change, pandemic and economic recovery, maritime security, and environmental protection“.
Jean-Pierre emphasised that Biden feels “leader-to-leader” contact is “very important” and “that’s what you’re going to see with the summit”. US officials, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, said they hope that personal touch will make a difference in helping Washington to re-establish its presence after long ignoring a region that the US had dominated since the end of World War II.
“Our goal over the next couple of days, fundamentally, is to meet the Pacific islanders where they live. They’ve made clear to us that they want us as partners on, again, the biggest issues,” a senior official said.
“The demand signal extends in the Pacific and it’s louder and clearer than it ever has been.”
Asked whether Pacific leaders would be concerned that the Biden administration’s pivot toward their region might prove temporary, the official said “I can’t deny that this is not a concern.”
However, the official said that there was rare bipartisan support for maintaining US pre-eminence in the island nations, suggesting that a different president would not change tack. “I just think we have to be confident that over time we learn,” he said.
The White House said leaders attending would be from Fiji, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, French Polynesia, and New Caledonia.
Vanuatu and Nauru are sending representatives and Australia and New Zealand are attending as observers.