Pacific island leaders welcomed a promise by the United States to increase aid to island nations in the Pacific Ocean. Proposed aid will go to fight illegal fishing, increase security and deal with climate change. It comes after many years of limited support.
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris spoke to the leaders at the Pacific Islands Forum, or PIF, in Suva, Fiji by video link on Wednesday. Harris proposed that U.S. aid to the islands would increase 200 percent to $60 million a year for the next 10 years. The measure requires approval from the U.S. Congress.
Leaders gathering for the four-day meeting see climate change as the area’s major security issue. But tensions between China and the U.S., and the surprise withdrawal of Kiribati from the meeting, are also being discussed.
Recently, some Pacific leaders have sought to increase trade and security ties with China. The Solomon Islands, for example, struck a security agreement with China that has brought concern from the United States and its allies.
Harris told the leaders, "We recognize that in recent years that Pacific islands may not have received the diplomatic attention and support that you deserved…We are going to change that.”
After Harris’ speech, Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. told Reuters, "It really shows the U.S. are back and want to play an active role." He added, "Sometimes because of our remoteness we get forgotten, so this was important.”
The meeting will discuss a proposal by China to sign a trade and security agreement with 10 nations that have ties to China. But some PIF members are against it.
Palau, which has a defense relationship with the United States and diplomatic ties with Taiwan, was among the PIF members excluded from the proposed China deal. But Whipps said China was economically active in the nation.
"That competition creates, sometimes, concerns about security. We lived through World War Two and we don't want to see that again," he said.
The United States is also working on a renewed fishing treaty with Pacific island nations. The treaty has permitted U.S. ships to fish in their exclusive economic zones, or nearby waters, for many years. It has also offered greater support for maritime surveillance in the Pacific.
Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama is the chair of the Pacific Islands Forum. He said, “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.”
Increased attention from Australia
Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese added that it was important the U.S. was increasing support, including new embassies in Kiribati and Tonga.
"We very much welcome the Biden administration's increased presence in the region," he said, adding strategic competition was a backdrop to the conference.
Australia and Fiji announced they would build an $83 million center in Fiji to hold the Fiji navy headquarters, Fiji Hydrographic Office, and Fiji Maritime Surveillance Coordination Center.
Albanese said the countries will work together on the project. The Australian leader said that it would create local jobs, protect local fishing industries and was "important for our security partnership".
In Beijing, a Chinese official said that his government welcomes greater support from others to help the Pacific islands. But he warned that such efforts should not be undertaken to oppose China.
I’m Mario Ritter, Jr..
Hai Do adapted this Reuters report for VOA Learning English with additional material from the Associated Press.
Words in This Story
role –n. the part that someone or something has in an activity or situation
remoteness –n. the quality of being far away from other things or other people
surveillance –n. the act of carefully watching something or someone
strategic –adj. related to long term plans to reach major goals such as those involving politics, war, or other major events
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