Blinken to Meet with Pacific Island Leaders Balancing China and the West | The mighty 790 KFGO

By Kirsty Needham and Humeyra Pamuk

SYDNEY (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is visiting Fiji on Saturday to reassure Pacific island leaders that Washington and its allies are committed to COVID safety and vaccines, as China is stepping up its aid and influence in the region.

Blinken’s visit to Fiji, the first by a secretary of state in four decades, follows a meeting in Melbourne of the Quad group of the United States, Japan, India and Australia .

“The Quad is becoming a powerful delivery mechanism, helping to vaccinate much of the world, delivering many vaccines,” Blinken said en route to Melbourne. It would also strengthen maritime security to “repel aggression and coercion in the Indo-Pacific region”, he added.

The 18 Pacific Island leaders invited to the video meeting with Blinken are trained to balance the rival attentions of China and the United States and its allies.

The Federated States of Micronesia has said its President David Panuelo will make climate change and illegal fishing priorities with Blinken.

“It is plausible that the United States and its allies saw China’s increased presence in the Indo-Pacific as a call for more engagement in the region,” said Richard Clark, Panuelo’s press secretary.

In recent years, Beijing has strengthened its ties with the military and police, while providing loans and infrastructure to Pacific island nations.

A joint statement issued by Beijing following a meeting of foreign ministers of Pacific island nations in October pledged to cooperate with China’s flagship infrastructure policy, the Belt and Road Initiative. (BIS).

Beijing uses the economic activity associated with the BRI to achieve geopolitical goals, said Peter Connolly, a former army officer and PhD candidate at the Australian National University studying Chinese statecraft in the Pacific.

“Melanesian states viewed the BRI as a much-needed source of finance and infrastructure, but Melanesians are increasingly aware of what it has cost them and what it could cost them in the future,” said- he told Reuters by email, referring to the south. Western Pacific nations that do not have defense pacts with the United States.


Graeme Smith, a researcher at the Australian National University who studies China’s activity in the Pacific, said there was concern in Canberra about the possibility of China establishing a military base in the Pacific. The pacific.

China sent police trainers and riot gear to the Solomon Islands in December after riots there, a first.

It “frightened” Australia, which had previously sent police to the Solomons under a decades-old security deal, Smith said.

The regional hub of Fiji was the first Pacific island country to diplomatically recognize China 47 years ago and has received hundreds of military and police vehicles from Beijing since 2018.

Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama came to power in a military coup in 2006, and US sanctions were only lifted in 2014 after democratic elections.

Bainimarama is recovering from heart surgery in Australia, and although US officials said he was due to meet Blinken, Fiji did not say whether he had returned to Suva.

“The American people and their leaders belong in the heart of our Blue Pacific neighborhood,” the Fijian government said in a statement this week during the visit.

The US State Department said defense coordination with Australia and other allies was evident in the rapid relief response to tsunami-hit Tonga last month.

Two Chinese navy relief ships are currently en route to Tonga, which fell heavily into debt with Chinese companies while rebuilding its capital in 2006 after riots.

“China’s presence in the region has certainly sparked more interest,” said Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific Islands program at Sydney-based think tank Lowy Institute.

As Kiribati and the Solomon Islands, which transferred diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, are seeing a rise in COVID-19 cases this year, Australian defense planes have arrived with vaccines and emergency medical teams .

The four nations had already delivered 485 million doses of vaccines to the Indo-Pacific, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham in Sydney and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

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