US VP Harris launches Pacific push with new embassies, envoy
SUVA, Fiji — The United States launched a major push into the Pacific Wednesday as it seeks to hold off China’s advances in the region, with Vice President Kamala Harris announcing the opening of new embassies in Tonga and Kiribati at a key regional summit.
Washington will also appoint its first-ever envoy to the Pacific, Harris said as she pledged $600 million in funding for the region in her address to the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji.
The video-link appearance at the summit was a diplomatic coup for the United States, with China’s attempts to secure a meeting on the sidelines of the summit rebuffed.
The forum marks the first time Pacific leaders have met since the Solomon Islands signed a controversial security pact with China earlier this year.
And the mounting US-China rivalry in the Pacific has directed intense interest towards this year’s meeting, which brings together leaders from across the strategically important region.
Tongan Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni told AFP his country was “really happy that the US will be opening an embassy in Tonga, it will be the first time”.
“It is a big milestone. We are very happy we are finally having a US presence in Tonga,” he said.
US v China
At least one official from the local Chinese embassy was in the room for the vice president’s address, causing a stir among organisers.
Harris said she and US President Joe Biden acknowledged the Pacific may not have previously received enough attention or support in the past.
“We are going to change that,” she promised, adding the US wanted to “significantly deepen our presence in the Pacific region”.
America’s Pacific push — backed by a decade-long pledge of $60 million annually to the Forum Fisheries Agency and the relaunch of the Peace Corps in the Pacific — reflected a desire to “embark on a new chapter”, Harris said.
The US will also appoint its first-ever regional envoy and launch an inaugural national strategy for the region.
Harris said the US wanted to collaborate on maritime security, disaster relief and infrastructure projects that “do not result in insurmountable debt”.
Pacific expert Tess Cain told AFP that “it was a bit of a surprise that the vice president got that speaking slot”, given the forum is traditionally restricted to Pacific leaders, Australia and New Zealand.
“It’s possibly a surprise that it was the vice president and not the president that spoke with leaders this morning,” Cain said.
New Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese landed Wednesday in Fiji to attend the forum, his first visit to the Pacific since his election victory.
Albanese will try to mend his nation’s fractured relationship with the Pacific after Australia’s attempts to muzzle climate change announcements saw the last forum meeting descend into shouting and tears.
“I look forward to discussing the issues and dealing with climate change,” he said at the airport on arrival.
But the US-China rivalry and a shock decision by Kiribati’s Beijing-aligned leaders to withdraw from the forum on the eve of the summit have threatened to sideline climate at the summit.
Tuvaluan foreign minister Simon Kofe told AFP it was “the responsibility of the Pacific to reaffirm the importance of climate change”.
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