1 Oct 2022

‘We have let this drift’: US says further work to do after signing Pacific Islands partnership

4:34 pm on 1 October 2022
US President Joe Biden (C) and leaders from the Pacific Islands region pose for a photograph on the North Portico of the White House September 29, 2022 in Washington, DC.

US President Joe Biden (C) and leaders from the Pacific Islands region pose for a photograph on the North Portico of the White House September 29, 2022 in Washington, DC. Photo: CHIP SOMODEVILLA / AFP

The United States has conceded it let its relationship with Pacific Island nations "drift" before reaching an historic new partnership agreement with the region.

US President Joe Biden hosted a dozen Pacific Island leaders in Washington amid increasing US concern about China's growing influence.

The US secured the support of all of those attending for a joint declaration, setting out 11 areas of cooperation, despite Solomon Islands signalling in the lead up to the event that it would not agree.

US State Department counsellor Derek Chollet said the summit was part of a broader effort to ramp up engagement with Pacific Island nations.

"I think we have acknowledged that perhaps over the past years, yes, we have let this drift," he said in an interview with the ABC.

"We see a lot of upside potential with our relationship with the Pacific Islands."

An unnamed senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, sought to play down the initial concerns of Solomon Islands which had previously told other Pacific nations it needed more time to consider the proposal.

"All I can say to you … is that in the course of the negotiations over the joint declaration, all of the participants in the summit engaged in very constructive and transparent and really collaborative negotiations, and that of course included our friends from the Solomon Islands," the official said.

"And we were honoured that all the leaders were there at the summit, including of course Prime Minister Sogavare."

Pacific Island nations not being asked to choose a side

Some Pacific leaders have compared the US declaration to China's proposal for a sweeping trade and security deal with the Pacific, which leaders rejected earlier this year.

But Chollet insisted countries were not being asked to decide between China and the US.

"This is something we've talked in great detail about with the Solomon Islands as well as with our colleagues in Canberra," he said.

"We're not asking countries to choose between the United States and China. We're asking countries to just have a choice, we want countries to have a choice and to be able to play by fair rules.

"We have a long standing history with countries like the Solomon Islands, we want to build on that history and move us into the future and this is not solely about geopolitical competition."

A new Pacific strategy, released by the Biden administration to coincide with the summit, argued "pressure and economic coercion" by China risked undermining peace and security in the region.

Without naming China, Biden told the summit that world security depended on the security of Pacific Island nations.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning rejected the accusation of economic coercion and argued Pacific Island countries "must not be viewed as chess pieces in any contest between major powers."

"We will not engage in geopolitical jostling in the name of cooperation," she said.