The prime minister of Solomon Islands has criticised Washington, saying the US must respect Pacific leaders, after Joe Biden pledged $200m for the region in an effort widely seen as a push against China’s growing presence.
Biden hosted a group of Pacific leaders at a summit in Washington this week, after a similar meeting a year earlier.
The Solomon Islands prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, now closely aligned with Beijing, did not attend the White House talks, sending his foreign affairs minister, Jeremiah Manele, instead.
Speaking to local media in Honiara on Wednesday, Sogavare said the US must change its strategy when it came to meeting Pacific leaders and stop “lecturing” them.
“They must change their strategies of meeting with Pacific leaders. At least we have our representatives there. We were always given three minutes to talk and we would sit down only to listen to them lecturing us about how good they were,” he said.
His comments came as other leaders and former diplomats from the Pacific said the US was trying to make up for a long absence in the region.
Kaliopate Tavola, an ex-minister in Fiji and the country’s former ambassador to Brussels, said the US was “trying to catch up with others”.
“US chose to be absent from the Pacific for decades and it is coming back after that long absence. But its return is obviously fuelled by the need to counter China,” Tavola said.
The US president pledged to work with congress to provide $200m in funding for projects in the region aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change, spurring economic growth, countering illegal fishing and improving public health, according to a statement. The US also said it would open diplomatic ties with two more Pacific islands nations, the Cook Islands and Niue.
“The United States is committed to ensuring an Indo-Pacific region that is free, open, prosperous, and secure,” Biden said at the welcoming ceremony in Washington.
The US listed a long series of focus areas for “enhanced” Pacific engagement, including trade ties and economic development, and tackling climate change.
“Much is promised. [We] need to see results on the ground,” Tavola said, in relation to a pledge to enhance “people-to-people” ties.
Security in focus
Security for the region was high on the agenda of the talks, which come as Washington and Beijing jostle for influence in the region.
In May, Papua New Guinea signed a defence and maritime cooperation agreement with the US. Papua New Guinea is the most populous Pacific island nation and its location just north of Australia makes it strategically significant. The US deal comes after China signed a security agreement with Solomon Islands in 2022.
Tavola said the “geopolitical tensions between the two world powers make the Pacific an unsafe space” for island nations in the region.
The Papua New Guinea prime minister, James Marape, called for the US to support the Pacific country beyond security deals. Marape said looking back from the first summit in 2022, Papua New Guinea came to the latest White House talks “from a much-improved relationship” with the US, “but that is mostly from the security perspective, which we must step up on all other fronts.”
“The full strength of our relationship must also embody other development areas including commerce, trade and economics,” Marape said in a statement.
The Palau president, Surangel Whipps Jr, described the summit as “remarkable”, praising Biden for his leadership in bringing together the Pacific leaders to address shared challenges, calling it “unprecedented.” In a statement from his office, Whipps said those challenges included rebuilding Pacific economies after Covid.
He said the summit was an “important gathering of family”.
The Cook Islands prime minister, Mark Brown, also welcomed the elevation of US relations with his country and said the US-Pacific islands partnership could be an important tool for helping the region achieve its aspirations.
Concern over funding
Some in the Pacific also raised concerns over whether the funds would be delivered.
“There are some very valuable initiatives in there … some long overdue,” Paul Barker, the executive director at the Institute of National Affairs in Port Moresby, said. Barker said the list included new and ongoing areas of engagement, while cautioning it remained “dependent on approval by Congress”.
Dr Meg Keen, the director of Pacific Island Programs at Australia’s Lowy Institute, said that although the US had opened new embassies and a USAID office in the region since last year’s summit, Congress had yet to approve most of the funding pledges made in 2022.
Tavola said the US system that governed and allocated funds to the region “is not conducive to approving sufficient funds for the Pacific on a timely basis”.
“Much of the US’s promises can be slowed and snowed under by much bureaucracy,” he added.
Rebecca Kuku is a reporter with The National, based in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.
Reuters contributed to this report