The United States attempts at a framework for intensified engagement in the Pacific has struck a hurdle as the Solomon Islands signalled its intention not to sign on to an 11-point declaration.
The declaration is believed to be of a similar nature that China had tried with the Pacific in June when Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi made a whirlwind tour of the Pacific.
China was told then that a regional agreement required consensus from the entire region and should involve the Pacific Islands Forum.
Similarly as the US leader met with the Pacific nations a framework and a declaration was proposed that would see more US presence in the Pacific.
Washington is moving to ramp up its diplomatic, development and commercial presence in the region, partly in response to China’s growing influence in several Pacific nations.
The US proposal covers issues including strengthening US-Pacific ties, tackling climate change, sustainable development, security and preserving the rules-based international order.
Solomon Islands prime minister Manasseh Sogavare even before entering talks with President Biden had signalled at the United Nations General Assembly that they would not be coerced into a signing or siding with any one nation.
Mr Sogavare has been highly critical of traditional partners Australia, New Zealand and US because of their misconception of the Pacific.
He has said it more than once that the bigger nations needed to be mindful of the sovereignty of the Pacific nations.
While the Solomon Islands leader had his reasons, the Micronesians have taken the opportunity to tell the US where they want its focus to be, especially to do with nuclear testing and finance needed under the Compact of Free Association.
It’s the first time Pacific nations have been invited to Washington for an in-person summit and it is believed that negotiations over the joint declaration are still ongoing.
It is understood that the Solomon Islands sent a diplomatic note to other Pacific Island nations on Monday, announcing it will not sign up to the declaration, and stressing there was no consensus over the document.
The note also said Solomon Islands needed more time to reflect on the proposal, and that the declaration would have to be considered by its national parliament.
If anything, this would definitely make the US more anxious especially with the Solomon Islands getting cosy with China. The nation’s foreign ministers even had an engagement in the sideline of the general assembly.
Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo said the document focused on bolstering Pacific regionalism, tackling climate change, advancing economic growth, and supporting disaster preparation and response.
It also includes addressing COVID-19 and other health concerns, responding to the legacies of war in the Pacific and promoting nuclear non-proliferation.
Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa said the agreements were similar in intent as the Chinese deal, but added that the US had been more willing to negotiate with the Pacific as a whole.
This was seen in the US extending invites to Cook Islands, Niue, New Caledonia and French Polynesia which were excluded from the initial invite.
“We’ve been insisting that if partners wish to talk to us, collectively, then they need to do it through the modalities of the Pacific Islands Forum,” Ms Mata’afa said.
“When the Chinese were proposing something similar, we were giving them that message, but it didn’t seem to filter through or they weren’t willing to take that on board.”
This document if signed will allow the US to increase its fleets in the Pacific in the guise of border patrols and assistance to fisheries.
While many Pacific nations need the assistance, there are fears among some leaders that this would also give a wrong picture and may lead to conflict, and the Pacific nations would suffer.