US President Joe Biden vowed on Monday to help Pacific island nations deal with climate change during a summit aimed at boosting Washington's influence in the region against an increasingly assertive China.
“I want you to know I hear you” on climate issues, Mr Biden told leaders of the 18-member Pacific Islands Forum on a visit to the US that included talks at the White House and an American football game.
Mr Biden also announced that Washington was opening diplomatic ties with the “sovereign and independent” Pacific nations of the Cook Islands as well as the island state of Niue – population 1,689 – as part of US efforts to boost its footprint in what is fast becoming a key strategic region.
The US President stood alongside leaders in front of flags from their nations outside the White House after announcing millions of dollars in extra aid for climate, security and economic initiatives, AFP reported.
With climate change threatening to wipe some low-lying Pacific countries off the map, Mr Biden said that “we hear your warnings of a rising sea [that] poses an existential threat to your nations”.
He also pledged they would “never, never, never lose your status or memberships at the UN as a result of the climate crisis”.
But the underlying aim of the meeting, which follows on from an initial summit last year, was to promote the US as a partner in a region where China is a major rival.
“I want to talk about security. The US is committed to ensuring an Indo-Pacific region that is free, open, prosperous and secure,” Mr Biden told regional leaders.
Mr Biden said he was sending Washington's first coastguard vehicle to the region dedicated to training and working with Pacific island nations.
The move comes as China becomes more and more assertive about its maritime claims in the region, which US officials fear could be strategic in any possible future confrontation over Taiwan.
Both are self-governing nations in “free association” with New Zealand, meaning that their foreign and defence policies are in varying degrees linked to Wellington.
China's “assertiveness and influence, including in this region, has been a factor that requires us to sustain our strategic focus”, a senior US administration official said ahead of the meeting.
But China's influence was felt through the absence of the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, now closely aligned with Beijing.