U.S. President Joe Biden hosted leaders of Pacific Island countries at the White House on Monday for a summit, as the latter is still waiting to see if Washington is going to deliver the “big commitments” it has made.
According to the White House, the new U.S. funding for the region that Biden announced at the summit, which still needs congressional approval, totaled 200 million U.S. dollars, including a new 40-million-dollar infrastructure investment.
In his welcoming remarks, Biden mistakenly gave the sum of the new infrastructure investment as 40 billion dollars, transcripts provided by the White House showed. Although it has been corrected in the formal fact sheet, the wrong number was cited in a report by The Guardian, a British newspaper.
In 2022, the White House said the United States would invest more than 810 million dollars to aid the Pacific Islands, but the U.S. Congress had yet to approve most of the funding pledges.
The Biden administration’s efforts to re-engage with the Pacific Islands region suffered a setback when leaders of two important countries in the region, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, chose not to attend the summit.
Instead of staying in the United States to participate in the summit in Washington, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare returned to his country after attending last week’s 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
This photo taken with a mobile phone on July 2, 2023 shows the scenery of Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands. Situated in the southwest of the Pacific Ocean, the Solomon Islands boasts over 900 islands of various sizes. (Xinhua/Hao Yalin)
Also absent from the summit was Sato Kilman, prime minister of Vanuatu. Kilman was elected on Sept. 4 to replace the country’s former prime minister, Ishmael Kalsakau, who lost a no-confidence vote in parliament for actions that included signing a security pact with the U.S. ally Australia.
The Vanuatu parliament was scheduled to hold another no-confidence vote next week, and Kilman has to be present in parliament for the vote.
Another thorny issue is the negotiation with the Marshall Islands for an extension allowing them to stay in the Compact of Free Associations (COFA) with the United States, as they have unmet demands for Washington to allocate more money to address the legacy of the massive U.S. nuclear testing in the 1940s and 1950s. Marshall Islanders still suffer from health problems and environmental pollution caused by the detonation of U.S. nuclear bombs.
Following Monday’s summit, the Biden administration pledged to address “war legacies” by spending money on identifying and destroying “unexploded ordnance” in countries, including the Republic of the Marshall Islands, but it made no mention of the nuclear testing.
Commenting on the summit in general, Meg Keen, director of the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute — an Australian think-tank — said the Pacific Island region “is waiting to see if the big commitments from the United States are going to be delivered.”
Some analysts have noted that Washington’s latest overtures to the resource-rich region are still in the early stages.
“The United States is still in somewhat of a honeymoon phase in its reengagement with the Pacific islands,” wrote Gordon Peake and Camilla Pohle of the U.S. Institute of Peace, a non-profit group, in a recent article published on the South China Morning Post.
A lasting relationship “hinges upon mutual understanding and, when necessary, having conversations about difficult issues,” they said, adding that the main challenge is “sustaining this level of engagement and fulfilling the promises it has made, especially since so much funding hinges on congressional approval.”