Harris Vows US Will Strengthen Its Pacific Islands Relations

SUVA, Fiji (AP) -- U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris assured Pacific island leaders of more U.S. engagement after acknowledging Wednesday the United States may not have previously provided the diplomatic attention the region deserved.

Harris' virtual address to the Pacific Islands Forum, meeting in the Fijian capital Suva, comes as China vies for more influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

She proposed new embassies in Tonga and in Kiribati, a Micronesian state that split this week from the 18-nation forum in a major blow to regional harmony.

Harris also proposed requesting that the U.S. Congress triple funding for fisheries assistance to $60 million a year and appoint the first U.S. envoy to the forum.

"The United States is a proud Pacific nation and has an enduring commitment to the Pacific islands which is why President Joe Biden and I seek to strengthen our partnership with you," Harris said.

"We recognize that in recent years the Pacific islands may not have received the diplomatic attention and support that you deserve. So today I am here to tell you directly, we are going to change that," she added.

Harris' commitment was welcomed by Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, the forum chair who invited her to speak.

Her invitation was remarkable given that the forum's dialogue partners -- including the United States, China, Britain and France -- have not been invited to this year's summit.

"I think it is clear to see that the U.S. is certainly looking a lot more like the Pacific partner we have traditionally held it to be," Bainimarama said.

In Beijing, a Chinese official said that his government welcomes greater support from others to help develop and revitalize the Pacific islands but warned that such efforts should not be undertaken to counter China.

"We believe that when pursuing cooperation with the island countries, all countries should follow the principle of openness, inclusiveness and not target any third party or harm their interests," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said.

The United States and the forum's wealthiest nations, Australia and New Zealand, are concerned about a security pact signed this year between China and Solomon Islands.

They fear the pact could lead to a Chinese navy base being established in the South Pacific less than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) from the Australian northeast coast.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese arrived in Suva on Wednesday and plans to hold a bilateral meeting with Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare.

Albanese's government was elected in May with promises of more action on climate change and an additional 525 million Australian dollars ($358 million) spent on regional aid. Climate change is the forum's greatest security concern.

Australia also has a security pact with Solomon Islands and Australian police have been maintaining peace in the capital Honiara since violence late last year.

The new Australian government has described the China-Solomons pact as Australia's worst policy failure in the Pacific since World War II.

Albanese acknowledged in Suva that Australia in recent years has "not paid enough attention" to the Pacific island region. "And I know that the Biden Administration has said that," he added.

"I very much welcome the increased engagement of the United States in the region," Albanese said, describing the support package Harris proposed as "significant."

Both the Solomon Islands and Kiribati recently shifted their diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing. Kiribati's withdrawal from the forum is being interpreted as a deepening of China's influence in the region.