FILE PHOTO: Forum of the Pacific Islands’ Secretary General Henry Puna speaks during the High Level Segment session of the One Ocean Summit, which seeks to raise the international community’s ambitions to protect sealife, cut plastic pollution and tackle
By David Brunnstrom and Simon Lewis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Pacific island countries will meet with President Joe Biden next week for a second summit with the United States, Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum Henry Puna and a senior State Department official said on Monday.
Puna made the announcement at an event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in New York ahead of the annual U.N. General Assembly.
Richard Verma, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources, confirmed at the same event the summit would be held next week, but did not give a specific date. U.S. officials had previously said Biden would host the leaders in September.
“Currently our senior officials are in negotiations with Washington over the outcomes that we would like to see when we meet with President Biden next week,” Puna said.
“I’m very hopeful that those outcomes will translate into concrete actions moving forward, because right now, there’s a lot of issues and challenges confronting our Pacific region. Apart from climate change, there’s our economic recovery from COVID-19,” Puna added.
Puna said the Pacific island region had gone from a period of strategic neglect just a decade ago to become a subject of strategic interest, competition and “manipulation” today, a reference to the geopolitical rivalry for influence in the region between the United States and China.
“We must realize that the strategic interest and attention we enjoy today will not last forever, and we must capitalize on it in a manner that will ensure sustainable gains for our region and for our people, for decades to come,” Puna said.
He said the stance of the Pacific island countries had been clear: “we will engage with any partner who is willing to work with us, rather than around us.”
Mark Brown, prime minister of the Cook Islands and current chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, said at the event the region was looking to the Washington summit for “tangible” U.S. engagement that would help economic regrowth through improved transportation links and increased trade.
With climate change the “single greatest existential threat” to the low lying nations, they also sought strong U.S. advocacy and leadership on the issue and significant U.S. contributions to the Green Climate Fund at a pledging conference in Germany next month, Brown said.
Verma said Washington was “determined to be an enduring partner to the islands of the Indo-Pacific – determined to be responsive to your priorities, determined to help you tackle 21st century challenges and make the most of new opportunities, and determined to do it with all of you together.”
He added that the United States “will never lose sight of our common vision for this region – an Indo-Pacific that is free and open, resilient and connected, prosperous and secure.”
Biden hosted a first summit with 14 Pacific island nations a year ago, at which his administration pledged to help stave off China’s “economic coercion,” and he promised to work harder with allies and partners to address islanders’ needs.