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Pacific island leaders hail US pledge to triple funding to region

SYDNEY, July 13 (Reuters) – Pacific island leaders have welcomed a U.S. pledge to triple aid to the region to fight illegal fishing, boost maritime security and tackle climate change, after decades of stagnant US funding.

US Vice President Kamala Harris, in a video address to the Pacific Islands Forum in Suva on Wednesday, said US funding for the Pacific Islands would be tripled to $60 million a year for a decade, subject to Congressional approval.

Some Pacific leaders are seeking to balance China‘s trade and security ambitions in the region.

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Harris called on nations to “stand together” as bad actors seek to undermine the rules-based international order, without naming them.

“We recognize that in recent years the Pacific Islands may not have received the diplomatic attention and support you deserve,” she said.

Pacific leaders gathered for the four-day forum see climate change as the region’s top security issue, but tensions between China and the United States and Kiribati’s surprise withdrawal from the forum are also being discussed. .

“It really shows that the United States is back and wants to play an active role,” Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. said after Harris’ speech.

“Sometimes because of our remoteness we are forgotten, so that was important,” he told Reuters.

The forum will discuss a Chinese offer to sign a trade and security agreement with 10 nations that have ties to China, which some members oppose.

Palau maintains defense relations with the United States, diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and economic relations with China.

“The sky is the limit with the opportunity with China. This competition creates, sometimes, security concerns. We lived through World War II and we don’t want to see that again,” he said.

The United States concludes negotiations on a renewed fishing treaty with Pacific island nations that has allowed American vessels to fish in exclusive economic zones for decades and provides increased support for maritime surveillance in the Pacific.

Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said the fisheries treaty gave the United States a platform to “balance” strategic weaknesses in the Pacific.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said it was important for the United States to increase support, including new embassies in Kiribati and Tonga.

“We warmly welcome the increased presence of the Biden administration in the region,” he said, adding that strategic competition was the backdrop for the conference.

The Solomon Islands, which is party to the US Pacific Fisheries Treaty, recently reached a security deal with China, sparking concern from the US and its allies, although Honiara has said it does not would not authorize a naval base.

Palau’s Fisheries Minister Steven Victor said tourism and fishing were the country’s only sources of income and US funding had remained stagnant for 20 years.

Kiribati, also reliant on fisheries, struck fisheries deals with China after switching diplomatic ties from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, a month after the forum last met in person.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson told a press briefing on Monday that “China has had good cooperation with the Pacific Islands Forum for many years.”

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Editing by Jacqueline Wong and Michael Perry

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