The United States says it will open a new Embassy in Tonga this month as Washington steps up its diplomatic presence in the Pacific to counter China.

Daniel Kritenbrink, the top U.S diplomat for Asia-Pacific, said officials would also engage with Vanuatu and Kiribati about opening new embassies there.

In a statement, Kritenbrink said the U.S State Department has been in negotiations with the three Pacific nations since March.

There are eight U.S diplomatic missions in the Pacific, while China has nine including embassies in Tonga, Vanuatu and Kiribati.

In February, the U.S reopened its embassy in the Solomon Islands after 30 years.

The move came after Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare signed a security deal with China in April last year, raising concerns in Washington, New Zealand and Australia.

In March this year, Sogavare announced his government had awarded a multimillion-dollar contract to a Chinese state company to upgrade an international port in the Solomons’ capital, Honiara.

Sogavare also said he was “now seriously looking” at setting up an embassy in Washington DC.

The U.S, Australia and New Zealand have been concerned that China wants to build a naval base in the region.

Beijing has been accused of “setting death-traps” across the Pacific with the Chinese foreign ministry “targeting new trade talks” to expand its power and influence in the region.

But Beijing has rejected allegations that it is exploiting the island nations.

China’s ambassador to Tonga Cao Xiaolin said the trade relations were “mutually beneficial”.

He said Beijing was not interfering in the Pacific, but “treats the Pacific island countries as equals.

“It is China’s consistent stance. China always respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Pacific nations.

“When China exchanges in co-operation, China never interferes with the internal affairs and never seeks any geopolitical self-interest,” Cao said in a statement.

In her recent Pacific tour, Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni downplayed tensions between China and the West, saying climate change was the main focus of her visits to the Solomons, Tonga and Fiji.

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta has also returned from a visit to China and said the relationship was “very important and complex, requiring continual management” to ensure both countries do not lose sight of each other’s views and perspectives.

Mahuta’s visit has paved the way for a possible tour to Beijing by Prime Minister Chris Hipkins this year – the last trip was by Jacinda Ardern in 2019.

Stuff’s five-part investigation ‘Pawns of the Pacific’ explains how our island neighbours are caught in a geopolitical standoff between an increasingly aggressive China and an increasingly alarmed United States, and its allies and friends.

U.S President Joe Biden is seeking US$7.1 billion from Congress over the next 20 years for the Pacific.

Biden promised the economic assistance package when he hosted more than a dozen Pacific leaders at the White House in September.

The U. S president is expected to meet 14 Pacific leaders at the third Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) in Papua New Guinea on 22 May – a first for the region – before attending the second Quad Leaders Summit in Sydney on 24 May.