Washington should accept Pacific island priorities for the region, making climate change – not superpower competition – the most urgent security task, the region’s leaders said in Hawaii, ahead of a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden this month.
“The sentiment shared by Pacific island leaders is that they are hopeful that they would be able to work with the Biden administration on our strategy and our plan, rather than have the White House and the United States develop a plan for the region,” the governor of the U.S state of Hawaii, David Ige, said at a news conference after the closed-door meeting.
A regional strategy called the 2050 Blue Pacific Continent had been backed by all Pacific island nations and territories, Ige said.
Leaders and officials from 16 Pacific island nations and territories were present at Wednesday’s meeting in Honolulu.
Competition between China and the United States for influence in the Pacific islands has intensified this year, after China signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands, prompting warnings of a militarisation of the region.
Biden will host the first meeting of Pacific island leaders at the White House on 28-29 September.
Increased engagement with Washington was “very much welcome”, said David Panuelo, president of the Federated States of Micronesia and the conference chairman.
The United States and its allies Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Britain formed a group in June to discuss how to work together in the Pacific islands region, seen as a counter to China’s growing influence.
Panuelo said Pacific islands want China and the United States to “compete in a healthy manner” to maintain peace in the region.
Climate change will be a bigger challenge than the Second World War, he said, adding “it is like pulling teeth” for low-lying island states to access support from international climate funds.
Only 12 nations have been invited to Washington, with French territories among those excluded for protocol reasons, and the meeting criticised the decision.
“When the United States invites our region we want to be inclusive of all the members of the Pacific Island Forum as a family,” said Panuelo, referring to the main regional group.