“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,” said Henry Puna, secretary general of the Pacific Island Forum, during an event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in New York.
“Having small economies, we’ve been hit really hard with the border closures,” he said. But it is something that we’re very much looking forward to engaging with the US. And I’m sure that there will be very positive outcomes from our engagement.”
Acknowledging an increasingly polarised world dominated by geopolitical competition between the US and China, Puna observed that a period of “strategic neglect” for the Pacific Island region had been replaced by “strategic manipulation”.
“We must realise that the strategic interest and attention we enjoy today will not last forever,” he said. “We must capitalise on it in a manner that will ensure sustainable gains for our region and for our people, for decades to come.”
Biden hosted Washington’s first summit involving leaders from more than a dozen Pacific Island nations and territories in September last year.
That meeting concluded with the US pledging more than US$800 million on priorities like climate change, fishing disputes and maritime security as well as expanding its diplomatic presence across the region.
Though Washington has opened embassies in the island nations of Tonga, Kiribati and the Solomons, the promised funds have yet to come as the US Congress haggles over federal spending.
“I can say the same for what Australia has done with Aukus because they think it’s in their best interest,” he added.
“Our overriding principle is that we want to be friends to all and enemies to none.”