New Zealand urges US to engage with Pacific island states

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern urged President Joe Biden to engage more with Pacific island states as part of China’s concerted effort to increase its influence in the region when she met with the US leader in the White House on Tuesday.

“We will encourage the United States to really continue and strengthen engagement in our region, including economic engagement, which is really essential for our region,” Ardern said.

Biden reiterated that his administration seeks to partner with countries in the region. “We still have work to do in these Pacific islands,” he said.

The Biden-Ardern meeting follows a series of engagements the administration had with Indo-Pacific countries in May, beginning with a summit in Washington with leaders of the Association of Eastern Nations. Southeast Asia, or ASEAN; Biden’s visit last week to allies South Korea and Japan; and the Tokyo summit between the leaders of the Quad, an informal group from the United States, Japan, India and Australia.

The Pacific Islands include Papua New Guinea, United States Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, French Polynesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Caledonia, New Zealand , Palau, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Wallis and Futuna.

Since Chinese President Xi Jinping took office in 2013, Beijing has significantly deepened its involvement in the Pacific Islands region, focusing on expanding economic ties and increasing its footprint in the areas of diplomacy and of security. According to a 2018 US government report, China is a major player in the region, well ahead of the United States in most areas, including trade, investment, development aid and tourism.

The Biden administration is “playing catch-up,” said Patrick Cronin, chief Asia-Pacific security officer at the Hudson Institute.

“We’ve relied a lot over the years on Australia, for example, for its development, its engagement with the Pacific islands,” Cronin told VOA. “Obviously, that’s not enough.”

In February, Antony Blinken visited Fiji – the first US Secretary of State to make the trip in 36 years – and promised a new era of regional focus and US engagement.

Chinese presence

New Zealand has raised concerns about the Chinese presence in the Indo-Pacific region following Beijing’s security deal with the Solomon Islands. The pact, signed in April, would allow China “to carry out ship visits, make logistical replacements and make stopovers and transitions in the Solomon Islands”.

Meanwhile, Beijing signed a bilateral agreement with Samoa on Saturday promising “greater collaboration”. The agreement includes an economic and technical cooperation agreement, a transfer certificate for an arts and culture center and the Samoa-China Friendship Park, and an exchange of letters for a fingerprint laboratory for the police, a said a Samoan government press release.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi took part in a diplomatic blitz in 10 countries, pushing for a broad regional security pact that would allow Beijing to expand political ties, increase maritime cooperation and have a better access to natural resources in exchange for millions of dollars in financial aid. and the prospect of a free trade agreement opening access to the Chinese market for 1.4 billion people.

So far, China’s efforts have been pushed back. Earlier this week, Pacific island leaders said they could not accept Beijing’s proposed “Common Development Vision”.

The 10 Pacific island nations are concerned about “the substance of the communiqué and the lack of consensus around the process by which China pursued it,” said Anna Powles, senior lecturer at the Center for Defense and Security Studies at the Massey University in New Zealand. .

While China is likely to double down on bilateral relations in the Pacific, it should also continue to pursue this new multilateral approach, Powles told VOA.

In their meeting, Biden and Ardern “did not offer specific details about other countries’ efforts,” a senior administration official told VOA when asked if the United States was concerned. by the Chinese initiative.

“They discussed the importance of working together to present an affirmative vision for the region as well as consolidating traditional areas of cooperation and building new ones,” the official said.

Indo-Pacific economic framework

Ardern expressed support for the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, or IPEF, calling it “an important opportunity to build our region’s economic resilience,” but signaled that New Zealand would continue to advocate for the United States to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership or CPTPP.

The IPEF is the main US effort to re-engage Indo-Pacific nations in trade more than five years after the Trump administration pulled out of a comprehensive regional trade pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. After Washington left, the TPP eventually became the CPTPP – a bloc of 11 countries that now constitutes one of the largest free trade areas in the world.

Thirteen countries, including the Pacific island nations of New Zealand and Fiji, have signed on as “founding members” of IPEF, an outline of norms and standards to facilitate trade that Biden launched as he was in Tokyo.

The IPEF is not a free trade agreement that must be passed by Congress, where there is now little political appetite to open up US markets due to protectionist concerns for American workers.

Without trade promotion authority granted by Congress, the administration lacks credibility in the region, said Susan Aaronson, a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

However, China’s “disrespect for the rule of law towards its own citizens” and existing supply chain contracts during the pandemic has been “so dramatic” that it is pushing countries to rethink their relationships. , she said.

“It’s a huge opportunity for the United States,” she told VOA, adding that IPEF is “a creative way to try to address these issues.”

gun reform

During their meeting, Biden, who had just returned from the town of Uvalde, Texas, where an 18-year-old man killed 19 children and two teachers, praised Ardern’s leadership in the fight against extremism. and gun violence in New Zealand.

“We need your advice,” he said.

In 2019, less than a month after a white supremacist gunman killed 51 Muslim worshipers at two Christchurch mosques, New Zealand lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to ban military-style semi-automatic weapons. and enacted a buyback program.

“Our experience, of course, in this regard, is our own, but if there’s anything we can share that would be of value, we’re here to share it,” Ardern said.

According to the non-profit group Gun Violence Archive, the Uvalde school shooting is the 213th mass shooting in which four or more people have been shot or killed in the United States in 2022.

“There is an expression of an Irish poet who says: ‘Too long suffering makes the stone of the heart.’ Well, there’s an awful lot of pain,” Biden told Ardern. “I’ve seen more mass shootings than I think any president in American history, unfortunately.”

Even as Americans on both sides of the political aisle demand action in the wake of the latest violence, gun control legislation has stalled for decades, with Senate Republicans even blocking measures that receive broad public support, such as universal background checks on gun buyers.

Lynn A. Saleh