By Alex Willemyns
U.S. President Joe Biden on Monday called on Congress to approve $40 billion in infrastructure spending for the Pacific Islands, the latest in the administration’s push to stem Chinese influence in the region.
The proposal came on the first day of the second Pacific Islands Forum in Washington in a year. The United States also recognized two new Pacific Islands nations – Niue and the Cook Islands, both self-governing states in free association with New Zealand.
Speaking alongside the leaders of the Pacific Island states after a morning meeting and a “family photo” at the White House, Biden said the United States was a committed friend of the 18 small nations who said they want more substance and less rhetoric from America.
“We hear your warnings of a rising sea, that it poses an existential threat to your nations,” Biden said to the leaders. “We hear your calls for reassurance that you never, never, never will lose your statehood, or membership with the U.N., as the result of a climate crisis.”
The U.S. would provide $20 million to the Pacific Islands countries to deal with climate change mitigation, he said, adding Congress should approve far more for infrastructure projects.
“Strong growth begins with a strong infrastructure,” Biden said. “So today I’m pleased to announce that we’re working with Congress to address $40 billion in our Pacific Islands Infrastructure Initiative.”
Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown said he appreciated Biden’s proposals, which he said represented a welcome focus on the Pacific in just the second such forum hosted on U.S. soil.
But he called for a “more engaged” United States, and said the senior partner’s engagement “cannot be restricted to annual summits.”
“The United States is a country that’s 247 years old. Our Pacific countries here celebrate 40, 50 and 60 years as independent nations from decolonization,” said Brown, this year’s forum chairman, noting that his country and Niue were just getting U.S. diplomatic recognition.
“It must be a year-long effort, working to an agreed plan of action and supported by requisite resources to deliver transformative actions,” he said. “Our gathering today is our joint commitment to elevating our efforts as the Pacific [Islands] Forum and the United States.”
The feasibility of Congress passing such a hefty package – clearly aimed at countering China’s growing influence in the Pacific thanks to its own high-spending Belt and Road Initiative – is less than assured.
Last year’s Pacific Islands Forum in Washington, spurred on by Chinese inroads in the Solomon Islands, produced a pledge of a comparatively less impressive $800 million in funding for the Pacific over a decade, a multiple of 50 times less than Monday’s proposal.
Biden’s latest proposal also comes with Congress deadlocked in last-minute talks to keep the U.S. government open past Saturday, with the Republican-led House unable to pass a budget even with heavy spending cuts as hardliners push for more penny-pinching.
That has left the Biden administration searching for other ways to woo the leaders, including a charm offensive taking advantage of the fact the leaders were in New York for the U.N. General Assembly.
On Sunday, they were given their own special Amtrak train to travel from New York to Washington, with a quick day-trip to Baltimore.
In Baltimore, they were feted on the field during the Baltimore Ravens 22-19 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, before boarding a Coast Guard cutter to meet with Coast Guard Commandant Linda Fagan and discuss U.S. efforts to help counter illegal fishing in the Pacific.
The leaders are next scheduled to meet with Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, on Monday evening. On Tuesday, they take part in a trade roundtable with U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and attend a barbeque hosted by Australia’s ambassador, Kevin Rudd.