As tensions grow over security in the Indo-Pacific region amid an increasingly assertive China, Tonga and the United States agreed that working together, guided by strategies such as the Pacific 2050 Strategy, would be key to ensuring that – the Pacific remain a region of peace, security, and prosperity, says Tongan Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni.

PM Sovaleni made the statement after his talks with U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his visit to Tonga on Wednesday, as the U.S continues to increase its diplomatic efforts in the Pacific while China’s influence in the region grows.

“Our partnership is grounded on our shared respect for democracy, the rule of law, and the rights and freedom of others. We covered many aspects of our partnership, including the need for countries to raise commitment to tackling climate crisis. We agreed that education is an important component.

In addition, we acknowledged a changing global landscape, the impacts of conflict, and the strategic importance of Pacific Island region. We agreed that working together, guided by strategies such as the Pacific 2050 Strategy, would be key to ensuring that our – ours remain a region of peace, security, and prosperity,” said PM Sovaleni.

Blinken dedicated a new U.S Embassy in Nuku’alofa Wednesday which opened in May this year and praised the return of Peace Corps volunteers following the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The United States and the Kingdom of Tonga enjoy a longstanding and enduring partnership. A strength of that partnership is the people-to-people links, and we appreciate and acknowledge the important and valuable contribution from the United States Peace Corps.

“I told the Secretary that the establishment of the U.S Embassy and his presence here today is a testament to the fact that our partnership is growing from strength to strength.

“Our partnership enjoys a strong defence component. More importantly, it is a reminder of the enduring links Tonga and the United States share. The Secretary and I had the opportunity to look at a range of renewed and strengthened areas for our partnership. I asked the Secretary to expedite the visa processing facilities here in Nuku’alofa. The high cost associated with visa applications to the United States during the process puts great strains on Tongan families. We also discussed working together to mitigate problems with IUU, deportees, and also trafficking in persons, and of course cyber security.

“We agreed to continue high-level dialogue between our Pacific leaders and President Biden. This will be key to ensuring our partnership and shared agenda for our region continue to be strengthened. And I look forward to our second U.S.-Pacific summit between our Pacific leaders and President Biden in September. This is very important given the fact that Tonga will be taking up the chairmanship of the Pacific Islands Forum for the next year,” said PM Sovaleni.

Blinken said the U.S is fully committed to working with Tonga, and with all Pacific Islands, to usher in a new era of even closer collaboration to deliver on the issues that matter most to the people – rooted in mutual respect and mutual trust.

“This partnership is vital to making real a shared vision for the region and the broader Indo-Pacific – a region that’s open, that’s free, that’s connected, that’s prosperous, that’s secure, that is resilient.

“When we talk about “free and open,” we mean a region where all countries are free to choose their own path and their own partners; where problems are dealt with openly; where rules are reached transparently and applied fairly; where goods, where ideas, where people can move freely and lawfully,” said Blinken.

Last year, President Joe Biden launched the first-ever U.S.-Pacific Islands Summit, to bring the voices and perspectives of Pacific Island leaders – directly to the Oval office.

“And we look very much forward to continuing that work by hosting a second summit in Washington later this year.

“To better understand the needs of our Pacific partners and to carry out our shared efforts, we’re building up our diplomatic capacity in the region. We also set up our embassy in the Solomon Islands. We’re working to establish posts in Vanuatu and in Kiribati.

When I travel after here to New Zealand and then to Australia, I’ll discuss with my counterpart’s ways to advance that work, including on maritime security and on illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. We know that this is in many places devastating livelihoods, doing terrible damage to ecosystems, and together with our Partners in the Blue Pacific an area where we’re going to intensely focus our efforts,” Blinken told reporters in Nuku’alofa.