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Biden seals 3 deals on Pacific islands as the US competes with China

Secretary of State Tony Blinken (L) at the signing ceremony with Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape (C) and Defense Minister Win Bakri Daki. Photo: Adek Berry/AFP via Getty

A US diplomatic offensive to counter The growing influence of China in the Pacific Islands appears to be paying off, with three deals sealed in 48 hours.

The panorama: The Biden administration has focused much more attention on the Pacific islands: new embassiesmore help, several high-level visits, since a China-Solomon Islands security pact scared Washington last year.

  • Recent deals with Papua New Guinea (PNG), Palau and Micronesia underscore that, for now, “it’s still a very US-biased region,” says Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation.

Driving the news: Secretary of State Tony Blinken and PNG Prime Minister James Marape signed a security pact on Monday under which the United States will provide training and funding to help PNG’s military respond to threats such as drug trafficking. and natural disasters.

  • President Biden intended to sign it himself in what would have been the first US. presidential visit to a Pacific island country, but flew home from the G7 summit in Japan to deal with the debt ceiling crisis.

Between lines: The US-PNG agreement has not been published, but it is expected give the US military conditional access to the country’s bases, ports and airports.

  • Ahead of the signing, student protesters and rival politicians in PNG accused Marape of sacrificing sovereignty and putting the country at the center of the US-China rivalry.
  • marape delayedarguing that the deal will strengthen PNG’s defenses and not prevent the country from doing business with China, which has developed highways and other infrastructure projects in the country in recent years.
  • The Beijing Foreign Ministry did not directly oppose the deal. but he said Beijing opposes the “introduction of geopolitical games” in the region.

This is virtually a mirror image a year ago, when China signed an opaque security pact with the Solomon Islands.

  • That deal “somehow let the genie out of the bottle,” Grossman says, with China trying to replicate it elsewhere, so far without success, and the US negotiating its own deal with PNG.
  • Even if competition with China is pushing the US into the region, the Biden administration knows it has to address local concerns (climate change, fisheries protection, sustainable development) to make real progress, says Charles Edel, president of Australia at the Center for Strategy and Development. International Studies.
  • The countries of the region, for their part, face the challenge of capitalizing on the competition between the superpowers without being burned by it.

Blinken oversaw another signing ceremony on Monday when Palau extended its Compact of Free Association (COFA) with the US for another 20 years. Micronesia will do the same tomorrow.

  • A third deal, with the Marshall Islands, is expected later this year, though talks are ongoing. in progress on compensation for those affected by US nuclear tests on the islands in the 1940s and 1950s.
  • The US covers large portions of the budgets of all three countries, provides for their defense, and allows their citizens to live and work freely in the US. In exchange, the US military gets unrestricted access to a strip of Pacific larger than continental US

Retrospective scene: In an extraordinary letter last year, Micronesia’s then-president David Panuelo accused Chinese officials of bribery and intimidation and warned that Beijing wanted to dominate the region. Beijing denied the claims.

  • The incident underscored the trust gap Beijing faces in some regional countries, Grossman says, though China has made progress. in Kiribati as well as the Solomon Islands.

What to see: The level of attention paid to Pacific Island countries may seem surprising given their small populations and economies.

  • Many Americans may have only heard of countries like the Solomon Islands because of the great battles that were fought on their soil between the US and Japan. But with fears of a US-China conflict over Taiwan or in the South China Sea mounting, that story provides insight into the strategic importance of the region.
  • “This is all about planning for the future,” says Grossman. “If the balloon goes up, who has friends in the region to allow military access?”

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