With China looming, Biden plans new Pacific Islands summit after PNG no-show

SYDNEY, May 17 (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden will host another summit of Pacific island leaders this year after a disappointing cancellation of a trip to Papua New Guinea over the domestic debt ceiling crisis, his national security adviser said. Wednesday.

Political analysts said Biden’s cancellation of a short trip to Port Moresby was planned for next Monday after the G7 summit in Japan, a blow to US credibility in the Pacific island region where Washington competes with China for influence.

Asked whether the decision to cancel gave Beijing an advantage, the president’s senior security adviser, Jake Sullivan, who was en route to Japan with Biden, said that “the US signal of need is only growing for the Pacific Islands.”

“Within this calendar year, you’ll see the president invite the leaders of the Pacific Islands to a major summit, the second time in 12 months that he’s done that,” Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One.

Sullivan said the summit has yet to be scheduled, “but we will get it on the books so we can continue to make progress with the Pacific Islands.”

Last year, Biden hosted an unprecedented summit of Pacific island leaders.

His three-hour stopover in Port Moresby next Monday will be his first as US president, and the island nation has declared a public holiday in his honour. Biden was scheduled to meet with 18 Pacific island leaders there.

“They are obviously disappointed that the president will not be the first president of the United States to visit Papua New Guinea,” Sullivan said.

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“But they’re also very mindful of the fact that this president has done more than any previous president in terms of his personal engagement with the Pacific Islands.”

Loan ceiling

The crisis over the U.S. debt ceiling — an issue with the potential to damage the global economy — prompted Biden to postpone visits to Papua New Guinea and Australia, allowing him to return to Washington earlier.

He was due to meet the leaders of the other countries of the Quad, Australia, Japan and India, in Sydney, but they will now speak in Japan.

The stopover in Papua New Guinea, a country of 9 million people north of Australia, was seen as a major confidence-building step in a region where China has sought a greater security presence.

“This is a big deal for Papua New Guinea and they will be disappointed,” said Mihai Sora, a Pacific Islands analyst at Sydney’s Lowy Institute think tank, who said it was “a blow to US credibility in the region as a stable partner”.

“So far Pacific Island leaders have given the United States the benefit of the doubt about their ability to reengage.”

Biden’s decision recalled President Barack Obama’s cancellation of a trip to attend two summits in Asia in 2013 due to the US government shutdown.

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marab said this week he was preparing to sign a major defense deal with the United States that would allow US Coast Guard ships to patrol its waters. He has not commented publicly on Biden’s cancellation.

Some opposition politicians have criticized the deal as upsetting China, a major infrastructure donor.

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Three visits by XI

Richard Maud, a former Australian intelligence chief who is now at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said the cancellation would set back relations.

“The mantra in the region is about return. Return is half the battle. China changes all the time, so the optics are not great,” he said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has visited the region three times, including a visit to Papua New Guinea in 2018.

The Pacific Islands span 40 million square km of ocean, where major sea lanes and submarine cables connect the United States to its allies Australia and Japan. But leaders there complained that the United States was treated as a “flyover” nation.

China last year struck a defense deal with the Solomon Islands, where a Chinese state-owned company will rebuild an international port. After failing to sign a defense and trade deal with 10 countries, Beijing continues to lobby for a bigger role in the region.

Washington has made progress in renewing strategic agreements with two Pacific island states — Micronesia and Palau — under which it retains responsibility for their security and provides economic aid.

They expect to be formally signed at a ceremony in Papua New Guinea on Monday. A third agreement with the Marshall Islands is yet to be finalized and expires this year.

Kirsty Needham in Sydney reports; Additional reporting by Lucy Cramer in Wellington; Editing by Nick MacPhee

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Jeff Mason

Thomson Reuters

Jeff Mason is a White House correspondent for Reuters. He has covered the presidencies of Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden, as well as the presidential campaigns of Biden, Trump, Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain. He served as president of the White House Correspondents’ Association in 2016-2017, leading the press group in advocating for press freedom in the early days of the Trump administration. His and the WHCA’s work has been recognized by Deutsche Welle’s “Freedom of Speech Award”. Jeff has asked pointed questions of domestic and foreign leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. He is the winner of the WHCA’s “Outstanding News Coverage under Deadline Pressure” award and co-winner of the Association for Business Journalists’ “Breaking News” award. Jeff began his career in Frankfurt, Germany before being posted. Brussels, Belgium, where he covers the European Union. Jeff appears regularly on television and radio and teaches political journalism at Georgetown University. He is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Middle School of Journalism and a former Fulbright Scholar.

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