The United States needs to speed up its diplomatic efforts in the Pacific island region in the face of Chinese competition, a U.S. diplomat said Friday, adding that he was sure President Joe Biden would be warmly welcomed there if he decided to visit.
Joseph Yun, a special presidential envoy who leads efforts to renegotiate U.S. agreements with three Pacific island states, was asked at a U.S. think tank about reports that Biden would make a brief stop in Papua New Guinea (PNG) on May 22 and the response from officials there.
“Obviously for the Pacific, I am sure they would welcome President Biden, if he were to go there,” Yun told the Hudson Institute.
“I don’t think that decision has been fully made,” he said and added: “It is a good thing whenever heads of state get engaged on new issues.”
A spokesperson from the PNG prime minister’s office told Reuters on Thursday that Biden would stop in the capital, Port Moresby, for three hours on the way from a Group of Seven meeting in Japan to Australia to attend a summit of the Quad countries — the United States, Japan, India and Australia.
A Pacific islands source told Reuters that Biden was also expected to meet with more than a dozen Pacific islands leaders, but the White House National Security Council has not responded to request for comment on the plans.
Yun said the level of Chinese engagement in the region was concerning. He described the Pacific island region as crucial to U.S. national security but also as having been neglected by the United States.
“So now we’re playing … a little bit of catch-up, I would say, and but you know, we need to accelerate our catch-up,” he said.
Yun has been leading talks to renew Compact for Free Association (COFA) agreements with the Marshall Islands, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia under which the United States retains responsibility for the islands’ defense and gains exclusive access to huge strategic swaths of the Pacific. The deals are due to expire this year and next.
Yun said the “top line” agreements in the negotiations with the nations would provide them with a total of about $6.5 billion over 20 years.
He said he was very optimistic the agreements would be finalized and that the U.S. Congress would approve them in a short time but that there was still some hard work ahead.