U.S Pacific summit faces rocky start as island leaders reject Washington’s offers


U.S attempts to bolster ties with Pacific islands have suffered a major blow on the eve of its landmark summit, with Solomon Islands rejecting a draft U.S agreement, and Micronesian leaders raising serious concerns about “insufficient” financial assistance to the region, leaked documents obtained by the Guardian reveal.

Joe Biden is hosting a number of Pacific leaders in Washington for a US-Pacific Islands summit, which starts on Wednesday – the first time that Pacific leaders have been invited to the White House for such a meeting.

The summit is an attempt by the U.S to strengthen ties with Pacific countries and has been widely seen as a response to China’s growing engagement in the region.

However, the U.S’s offering to the region has sparked consternation among Pacific leaders.

A leaked note, written by the embassy of Solomon Islands in New York, announced the country, which signed a controversial security deal with China in April, would not be endorsing a regional diplomatic agreement being proposed by the U.S.

“Solomon Islands is not in a position to adopt the declaration this week and will need time to reflect on the declaration and refer the declaration through Solomon Islands’ national decision making process,” says the note, which was addressed to the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, and seen by the Guardian. “Solomon Islands note that the declaration remains under discussion and have yet to enjoy consensus and will need further discussion.”

The proposed declaration is in the process of being negotiated and the U.S was hoping it would be adopted by Pacific leaders at this week’s summit.

A source involved in the negotiations told the Guardian that Pacific Island leaders were going to meet on Tuesday night in New York to discuss the declaration, but the meeting was deferred by the Solomon Islands delegation.

The 11-point declaration of U.S-Pacific partnership, a draft of which has been seen by the Guardian, commits Pacific countries and the U.S to working together “in the face of a worsening climate crisis and an increasingly complex geopolitical environment”.

The draft differs markedly from the sweeping regional economic and security deal that China presented to 10 Pacific countries earlier this year, which was ultimately rejected by Pacific leaders.

China’s deal was incredibly detailed, committing to particular sums of money, programmes and even outlining the number Chinese art troupes that would be sent to the islands as part of a cultural exchange programme.

It also would have seen a massive expansion of China’s involvement in security arrangements in the region, including expanding its training of police forces, constructing laboratories for fingerprint testing, forensic autopsy, drugs, electronic and digital forensics, and strengthening cooperation on cybersecurity.

The draft declaration with the U.S is far more general, committing to principles of engagement – such as bolstering Pacific regionalism, tackling the climate crisis, advancing economic growth, protecting the Blue Pacific and maintaining peace and security – rather than outlining specific policies and promises.

The first point in the draft Declaration details the U.S’s commitment to “the timely and successful completion of negotiations relating to the Compacts of Free Association with the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Palau”.

The U.S has Compact of Free Association agreements with these Pacific nations, which obliges the US government to provide financial assistance to them in exchange for defence responsibilities. Agreements are currently under negotiation, with the Marshall Islands’ and Federated States of Micronesian compacts due to expire next year.

In the draft declaration, the .US called these compacts “one of the cornerstones of U.S-Pacific cooperation for nearly four decades” and committed to resolving negotiations in a way “that adequately address and meet the priority needs of those three nations”.

However, the Guardian has also obtained a leaked letter sent by ambassadors for Palau, the Federated States of Marshall Islands and the Marshall Islands to Kurt Campbell, the U.S National Security Council coordinator for Indo-Pacific, and one of Biden’s most senior foreign policy advisers, raising concerns about what has been offered by the U.S.

“The current proposed assistance is inconsistent with the contributions of our islands towards the security and stability of the region, which also supports U.S interests in the region,” said the letter, sent on Monday. “The U.S proposed economic assistance seems predetermined and based on insufficient analysis … To put it simply: the U.S economic assistance is insufficient.”

The Ambassadors made it clear that the US “has been, is, and will continue to be our first and foremost ally” but also that “the governments we represent cannot rely on a successful outcome from what has been presented” in negotiations.

“The gaps between the needs of our peoples and what has been offered are narrowed, but are far from closed,” said the letter.

The impacts of the climate crisis are being acutely felt across the Pacific, including in the north Pacific nations of Palau, FSM and Marshall Islands. A report from the World Bank last year found that 40 percent of the buildings in the Marshall Islands’ capital of Majuro would be permanently flooded and entire islands would disappear, based on projections of one-metre sea level rise.

“Our remarks may come across as heated, but the primary point is that this [climate change] is our hottest and most important topic,” said the ambassadors in the leaked note. “We are unable to solve climate change, and unable to provide for our citizens’ education and health needs, unless and until these negotiations conclude, and conclude in such a manner that genuinely meet our development needs.”

Richard Clark, the press secretary for President David Panuelo of the Federated States of Micronesia, said that FSM considered the U.S, Palau and Marshall Islands to be “family”.

“We are a healthy and functional family, and we are internally discussing sensitive issues with frankness because we have no doubt that we collectively have each other’s backs,” he said.

The president of Palau, the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands and the U.S National Security Council could not immediately be reached for comment.