Wednesday 17 May 2023 | Written by Supplied | Published in Pacific Islands, Regional
After days of speculation the White House yesterday confirmed Biden would cut short the overseas trip so he could focus on debt limit talks in Washington.
The cancellation could prove a blow to mounting US diplomatic efforts in the Pacific, which have ramped up in recent years to counter China’s increasing influence.
In Papua New Guinea, Biden had planned to meet leaders of countries in the Pacific Islands Forum.
His visit to Papua New Guinea would have been the first by a sitting US President to a Pacific country and comes as the two nations pursue a security pact.
The planned visit also came as the US opens new embassies across the Pacific.
Biden will still attend the Group of Seven summit in Japan with leaders from some of the world’s largest economies but return to the US on Sunday for talks on the debt limit standoff with Republicans.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden had spoken to Australia Prime Minister Anthony Albanese about postponing the trip. He had also invited Albanese for an official state visit.
The White House had also informed Papua New Guinea.
“Revitalising and reinvigorating our alliances and advancing partnerships like the Quad remains a key priority for the President,” Jean-Pierre said.
“This is vital to our ability to advance our foreign policy goals and better promote global stability and prosperity.
“We look forward to finding other ways to engage with Australia, the Quad, Papua New Guinea and the leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum in the coming year.”
It is unclear who - if anyone - will be travelling in Biden’s place.
Biden’s planned visit would have come amid an unprecedented US diplomatic push in the Pacific in a bid to counter China’s growing influence.
RNZ Pacific this week reported the US and Papua New Guinea were poised to sign a security deal, which would give US armed forces uninhibited access to PNG’s territorial waters and airspace.
RNZ Pacific had seen a draft copy of the agreement. There were also fears that signing the pact would draw PNG into the militarisation of the region, especially following the Aukus security pact - signed by Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Under that deal, Canberra will spend more than $400 billion over three decades to acquire a fleet of nuclear submarines, which has drawn major concerns from Pacific nations still recovering from a legacy of nuclear testing by colonial powers.
The US is also pursuing a security arrangement with Micronesia.
Washington stepped up efforts in the Pacific after China struck a security pact with the Solomon Islands last year. China attempted to reach a wider security and trade deal with 10 Pacific island countries, which ultimately failed.
Biden’s visit follows the first US–Pacific Island Summit in Washington DC last year, and a major package of initiatives announced at last year’s Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji by Vice-President Kamala Harris, which includes opening new embassies and NZ$1 billion over the next decade towards fishing payments and economic support.
The Tonga embassy opened this week in Nuku’alofa and in March the US signalled plans to open an embassy in Vanuatu. There are also plans for an embassy in Kiribati.
The Quad partnership is also part of the broader US economic and military efforts in the Pacific. It formed during the response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed about 230,000 people.