The US will provide $210mn to Pacific Island nations to help tackle issues ranging from climate change and maritime security to economic development in Washington’s latest push to counter Chinese activity in the region.
The promised aid from the Biden administration follows a pledge of $600mn in economic assistance for the next decade that US vice-president Kamala Harris unveiled in Fiji in July.
The announcement comes as the US boosts diplomatic engagement with countries from Fiji to Papua New Guinea, part of a new strategy for the region after China caught the US by surprise this year by signing a security pact with the Solomon Islands.
Underscoring the increased engagement, US president Joe Biden will on Thursday host an inaugural summit of Pacific Island leaders in Washington.
The Chinese deal with the Solomon Islands highlighted what experts said had been a lack of attention in recent years from Washington and its allies in the Pacific, including Australia and New Zealand.
In recent months, several senior US officials, including Harris and secretary of state Antony Blinken, have visited Pacific Island nations. Penny Wong, Australia’s foreign minister, also travelled to the region as part of a push from Canberra.
Charles Edel, a Pacific expert at think-tank CSIS, said the past year had served as a “wake-up” call for the US about what he described as a critical need to increase engagement with small island nations in the Pacific.
“This White House summit, and other moves over the past six months, have shown that the Biden administration understands the importance of engagement with the Pacific Island countries. But the real test will be if Washington can sustain its commitment to the region over the long term,” said Edel.
The White House also released its first strategy for the region, the Pacific Partnership Strategy, which it said would boost ties through a “substantial increase in the overall US diplomatic presence and engagement”.
The US said it would provide more than $130mn in investment and leverage $400mn more in private financing to help countries tackle climate change, which is an existential challenge in the region.
Washington will also provide several million dollars to enhance US Coast Guard training and other efforts that will help countries improve maritime security and deal with threats, such as illegal fishing.
The US plans to open a new embassy in the Solomon Islands and start negotiations to open two more diplomatic missions in Tonga and Kiribati. It will also appoint an envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum, an important regional grouping, while the Peace Corps will restart programmes to send volunteers to Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu.
The White House also announced that the US would also recognise the Cook Islands and Niue as sovereign states.
The renewed push comes months after the US and its allies unveiled an initiative called Partners in Blue Pacific to help countries in the region avoid becoming too reliant on China.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter