US Vice-President Kamala Harris to make virtual appearance at Pacific Islands Forum to unveil major plans for the region

United States Vice-President Kamala Harris will make a major intervention at the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders’ meeting, announcing that America will substantially ramp up its presence in the region.

Ms Harris will make a series of announcements at a surprise virtual meeting with leaders in Suva on Wednesday and reveal that the administration will craft the first comprehensive US national strategy on the Pacific.

This includes plans to open two new US embassies in the region — one in Tonga, and another in Kiribati, which over the weekend announced that it was pushing ahead with its plan to pull out of the PIF.

The Vice-President will also announce the administration will appoint a new envoy to the PIF and plough an additional $500 million in funding into the Forum Fisheries Agency in return for fishing rights, soothing a persistent irritant in its ties with Pacific nations.

She will also flag plans to re-establish a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) regional mission in Fiji and bring Peace Corps volunteers back into the region.

Pacific leaders exchange agreements
Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama (right) personally invited the US Vice-President to take part in the meeting. (Supplied: Government of the Federated States of Micronesia)

Other major players sidelined

The Vice-President will be granted a platform to meet Pacific leaders and make the sweeping series of announcements even though the forum has moved to sideline most major powers at the leaders’ meeting.

It has already delayed a separate meeting with Dialogue Partners – including the United States, China, Japan, the United Kingdom and India – in order to allow the forum to focus on trying to heal the rift with Micronesian nations.

But the Biden administration’s announcements — and the Vice-President’s appearance at the Forum at such a delicate moment – is yet another sign that the US is intent on reasserting its presence and influence in the region as China continues to expand its footprint.

A senior administration official said the US was “embarking on a new chapter of a long-standing partnership” with the Pacific and “significantly stepping up our game in the Pacific islands”.

A general view of Grand Pacific Hotel, the venue for Pacific Islands Forum, with flags of the nations out the front.
Kiribati’s withdrawal has so far dominated discussions as Pacific leaders meet in Fiji for the first in-person summit in three years.(Reuters: Kirsty Needham)

Graeme Smith, senior fellow at the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs, said there was significance in Ms Harris’s invitation coming directly from Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.

In the past Fiji had played an interesting role, often being seen as doing “Beijing’s bidding”, he told the ABC. 

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.

Play Video. Duration: 1 minute 18 seconds
Pacific Island nations are in the crossfire of “three deadly seas”, the Fijian PM says.

“There has been a few things in recent years that have indicated that might be cooling, and this seems to be another indication of that,” he said.

Dr Smith said the US announcements were “a step back in the right direction” and in-line with what the Pacific had been asking for in terms of commercial engagement and aid.

The US was showing up and answering calls to be more present on the ground rather than not having any representation there, he said.

US could strike separate Kiribati deal

Kiribati’s withdrawal from the PIF has been a dominating topic in the lead-up to the four-day leaders’ meeting.

The senior administration official said the US was concerned by the move, but all plans would go ahead regardless of whether an agreement was reached for Kiribati to remain.

“We think obviously that PIF is stronger when united – it’s the whole point of the organisation … that countries can join together and speak as one … especially on climate,” the official said.

Kiribati’s decision has some Pacific countries concerned that it could result in the island country being drawn closer to China.

Kiribati Opposition Leader Tessie Lambourne told the ABC’s Pacific Beat program that she was “shocked” to learn of the withdrawal and hoped the government had not succumbed to external pressure.

“I hope that there is no other reason for leaving the forum family. I sincerely hope that there hasn’t been any influence on our government’s decision from other external sources,” she said.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong walks outside by the pool at the Grand Pacific Hotel.
Penny Wong arrived in Fiji a day ahead of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who will attend the Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting this week. (Reuters: Kirsty Needham)

Dr Smith said the US could move to offer Kiribati a “compact deal” to alleviate any concerns about the Micronesian state.

“That’s something I’d be looking for, because it was something that had been discussed on the fringes for a few years,” he said. 

“Because of where it is on the planet — just under Hawaii — you would expect some sort of further US reaction down the line.”

Upon arriving in Fiji on Tuesday, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong told reporters that forum members, including Australia, would seek reconciliation with Kiribati.

In his opening ceremony address, Mr Bainimarama stressed the most important issue for the forum was unity.

He said he respected the Kiribati President’s position, but would continue working towards a resolution that is in the best interests of the Pacific people.

“It is my personal belief … that we are at our most resilient as a family. We speak more powerfully as a family, and we can only build our best possible future together as a family,” he said.

“We simply cannot make the same difference for the health, security and prosperity of our people without every Pacific voice helping to chart the course of our region’s direction.”

Posted , updated