Washington unveiled an US$810 million package for Pacific island nations on Thursday, the second day of a two-day summit aimed at addressing climate change, bolstering economic assistance, fisheries, trade and investment and providing other tangible support to a region where China is making growing strides. The new funding includes monies for initiatives already in the pipeline, capped by a 10-year US$600 million Economic Assistance Agreement pending in the Congress for cleaning dirty waters under the South Pacific Tuna Treaty. “A great deal of the history of our world is going to be written in the Indo-Pacific over the coming years and decades. And the Pacific islands are a critical voice in shaping that future,” US President Joe Biden told representatives from 14 Pacific island nations seated at a large rectangular table. “And that’s why my administration has made it a priority to strengthen our partnership with your countries.” The package, touted by the administration as a “new milestone in US-Pacific cooperation”, also provides US$50 million for a global infrastructure and investment programme to boost economic recovery, including tourism, for island nations battered by the pandemic. In addition to the spending, an area where Washington is unlikely to match Beijing, Thursday’s initiative also tries to provide symbolic and diplomatic support for the region. Among those plans are a new USAID mission in Fiji and a renewed Peace Corps presence in Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu. Other measures include the first US ambassador to the Pacific Islands Forum, a regional political body, and formal recognition “after consultation” of Niue and the Cook Islands, which have historically been linked to New Zealand. In addition to the relatively large headline figures, Washington promoted the US$1.5 billion it has spent in the past decade to support the region. Also on Thursday, the administration unveiled what it termed the first-ever US strategy dedicated to the Pacific islands, saying that “urgent challenges” have prompted Washington to make “broader and deeper engagement” a priority for US foreign policy. “Pressure and economic coercion” by China “risks undermining the peace, prosperity, and security of the region, and by extension, of the United States”, the strategy document said. US vows ‘big dollar’ help for Pacific islands as it seeks to counter China Island leaders have accused the US of only paying attention to the region after China stepped up its activities – signing a secret security agreement with Solomon Islands this spring and moving closer to Kiribati – and Thursday’s package attempts to address many Pacific island countries’ (PIC) concerns not directly tied to Washington’s geopolitical scrum with China. “Matching China dollar for dollar in the PIC was always going to be a losing prospect for the United States, so to succeed in countering Chinese influence, the United States needs to show the region that it is truly listening to PIC needs and can deliver in those areas on a sustained basis,” said Alison Szalwinski, vice-president of the National Bureau of Asian Research, an independent civic group. “The announced initiatives address a pretty comprehensive list of the issues and challenges that Pacific island countries place high priority on,” she added, “and cover several areas that the US has fallen short in reassuring the PIC over in the past.” To counter China’s growing military presence and rogue fishing fleets, the US also hopes to bolster security in the region more directly with more than US$3 million funds earmarked to enhance US Coast Guard training and strengthen maritime security. “Security in the Pacific and for the Pacific islanders remains as critical as ever to us and I hope to you as well,” Biden said, “and the world depends on your security.” According to the Lowy Institute in Australia, China spent close to US$1.5 billion in foreign aid, a mixture of grants and loans, for the Pacific islands region between 2006 and 2017. In addition, Chinese construction activity in the region was US$958 million in 2017, according to Chinese data, nearly six times greater than its foreign aid activities. “While China is by no means the dominant donor in the Pacific, the way in which it delivers its aid – large infrastructure projects funded by concessional loans – makes these projects stand out,” the Brookings Institution said in a 2020 report. Much of China’s spending has been channelled through Belt and Road Initiative projects. While few can match its spending, though, Beijing has drawn criticism for implementation issues and for maintaining poor labour and environmental standards. In particular, analysts said, it tends to negotiate exclusively with elite politicians and a few top business executives and does not always do enough ground work. China hoped to press its early advantage over the Solomon Islands deal by signing a security pact with several Pacific island nations earlier this year, but that did not gain traction after regional leaders voiced concern about becoming pawns in US-China power games. Solomons’ PM, saying it had been maligned for China pact, denounces US “They tend to fail when they focus state to state, do not bring in non-governmental and community interests and work on such a short timetable,” said Sourabh Gupta, a fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies in Washington. In a bid to strengthen personal ties, Biden also invited island leaders to dinner at the White House, joking that he didn’t know what was on the menu but “I hope it’s good.” The US strategy document says that Washington will help Pacific islands adapt to and manage the climate crisis – an “existential threat” to their health and livelihood – and includes over US$20 million to help forecast climate and extreme weather events. Other US “deliverables” the administration highlighted on Thursday include the launching of a new Trade and Investment Dialogue by the end of the year, as well as assistance for health, education and more digital capacity. Japan steps up Pacific engagement amid China-Solomons pact concerns The Solomon Islands was among the 14 island nations taking part in the summit. Szalwinski called Thursday’s package a first step, but said that Washington needed to build a more sustained track record. “In its engagement with the PIC, the United States has to overcome a perception of ‘benign neglect’ and a historical pattern of inconsistent engagement,” she said. The initiative is “a start toward reassuring PIC leaders that these are long-term investments and alleviating concerns that this is yet another temporary surge of attention by the US”.