June 25, 2024

President Biden hosted the leaders of 18 Pacific Island nations at the White House on Monday, the second gathering of its kind in a year and the latest illustration of a regional competition for influence between the United States and China.

Speaking to the leaders at the White House on Monday, Mr. Biden invoked America’s World War II campaign against Japan in the region, and, without naming China, implied that another kind of battle was now underway.

“Like our forebears during World War II, we know that a great deal of the history of the world will be written across the Pacific over the coming years,” Mr. Biden said. “And like them, we owe it to the next generation to write that story together.”

Mr. Biden’s second U.S.-Pacific Islands Forum Summit, as the White House calls the event, is part of a larger Biden administration effort to deepen ties with a string of islands in the South Pacific, where Beijing hopes to project military power. The islands lie along a shipping route that the United States might use to help defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion.

The event was mainly designed to strengthen and spotlight ties. But Mr. Biden also announced that he was working with Congress to invest $40 million in infrastructure spending for the islands, and he said that the United States would establish diplomatic relations for the first time with the Cook Islands and Niue.

Those announcements hardly amount to a seismic diplomatic event, given that the combined population of those two nations is roughly 20,000 people. But they are two of many recent moves the Biden administration has made to strengthen America’s presence in a region east and northeast of Australia.

Over the past year, the United States has opened embassies in the Solomon Islands and Tonga, and plans to open one early next year in Vanuatu. When Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken landed in Fiji in February 2022, it was the first visit there by an American secretary of state in 36 years.

Mr. Biden had hoped to become the first sitting American president to visit a Pacific Island nation but was forced to cancel a trip to Papua New Guinea in May because of the federal debt ceiling crisis.

Those steps are in no small part chess moves in response to growing Chinese influence in the region, which became particularly vivid last year when the Solomon Islands surprised U.S. officials by signing a sweeping security pact with Beijing.

Biden administration officials say their goal is not specifically to compete with China, or to ask countries to choose between Washington and Beijing, but to help ensure a “free and open” Pacific that is peaceful and hospitable to commercial shipping. But they acknowledge that China’s assertiveness has forced them to pay increased attention to the region.

And China’s state-controlled media has derided U.S. efforts to gain influence as part of an obvious power struggle. An editorial on Monday in Beijing’s China Daily newspaper said the Pacific island countries had been “largely forgotten by the West” until recently, “when the United States and its allies started viewing China as a rival.”

“All of a sudden, the region has become an area of interest on their geopolitical chessboard,” the newspaper said.

The White House event on Monday was part of an elaborate multiday program that included a trip on Sunday to a Baltimore Ravens professional football game, where the leaders were honored on the field, and to a U.S. Coast Guard cutter in Baltimore Harbor, for a briefing by the Coast Guard commandant on maritime issues. Those issues include the growing problem of illegal fishing off the nations’ shores, for which China is primarily responsible. Mr. Biden said he would dispatch the first Coast Guard vessel dedicated to working with and training Pacific Island nations.

Mr. Blinken was also scheduled to host the leaders at a State Department dinner on Monday night. They were set to join a business round table on Tuesday with Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen and to meet with Mr. Biden’s special envoy for climate, John Kerry.

Biden officials say that the climate is the premier issue for the leaders, whose countries risk being submerged by rising sea levels.

To the frustration of the Biden administration, one key leader was notably absent from this week’s gathering: Manasseh Sogavare, the prime minister of the Solomon Islands, whose close relationship with Beijing has elicited concern in Washington.

Despite his presence in New York last week for the United Nations General Assembly, Mr. Sogavare did not come to Washington this week.

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