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‘Declaration of partnership’: US inks new Pacific pact in wake of China’s regional interest

“What I hope you take away from these engagements is that the United States shares your vision, and we are committed to help realise it,” Blinken told the gathering.

“It’s a vision that recognises that only by working together can we actually tackle the biggest challenges of our time that confront all of our citizens.”

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The enhanced partnership comes after the US and its allies were shaken earlier this year when China and Solomon Islands signed a new security agreement, prompting fears that Beijing could use it to establish a military foothold in the Pacific nation less than 2000 kilometres off Australia’s east coast.

Last week, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare used an address to the United Nations General Assembly to argue that his country had been subjected to “a barrage of unwarranted and misplaced criticisms, misinformation and intimidation” since formalising diplomatic relations with China in 2019.

On Wednesday, however, the Solomon Islands was one of about a dozen Pacific nations to take part in the summit, alongside nations such as Fiji, Palau, Tonga, Samoa and New Caledonia.

The attendance of the island nation came amid reports earlier this week that it was unlikely to sign onto a multi-part declaration with the US, raising doubts about whether there would be a consensus among the countries involved.

But Blinken on Wednesday suggested all parties had signed on, holding up a document as he hosted the leaders and saying: “I’m very pleased that we have this today, that we’ve agreed on it.”

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, right, locks arms with visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Honiara, Solomon Islands on May 26, 2022.Credit:AP

Asked later to confirm that the Solomon Islands had agreed to the declaration, State Department spokesman Ned Price declined to answer directly, other than to say: “I will, for now, so as not to spoil some of the surprise for tomorrow, just say that we’ve been in a position to make tremendous progress.

“We’ve been gratified by the constructive conversations that we’ve had with Pacific island attendees and we’ll have more to say on this tomorrow [when Biden hosts the leaders],” Price said.

While China’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific have been a growing concern for the US, the key priority for many Pacific leaders is climate change. And although Washington has made clear that it wants to step up its efforts in the region, some analysts have questioned whether the effort the US is now making will be ongoing – or if it’s just a reaction to Beijing’s influence.

One senior administration official admitted this week that “sometimes in that Indo-Pacific formulation, the region that gets short shrift is the Pacific.”

Charles Edel, the Australia chair of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said he agreed with the assessment.

“Over the last decade the Pacific indeed has gotten short shrift from Washington: under resourcing, less than laser focus on it and frankly, less understanding about why this region matters so much,” he said.

“But really over the last couple of months, you can see that the wheels of government are working to bring this area to the fore. They’ve obviously been cranking the policy levers over the last six months. Now the question is not whether those initiatives become ‘one offs’ but sustained engagement with the region, too.”

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