Via Teleconference

(July 11, 2022)

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much.  And thank you, everyone, for joining our call.  Tonight’s call will be on background, attributed to “senior administration officials.”  The contents of this call will be embargoed until Tuesday, July 12th, at 5:00 a.m. Eastern Time.  Again, that’s Tuesday, July 12th, 5:00 a.m. Eastern Time.  And by participating in this call, you are hereby agreeing to these ground rules.

Our speaker today, for your awareness only, is [senior administration official], who hereinafter will be referred to as a “senior administration official.”

So, with that, I’ll turn it over to him for some brief remarks before opening up for questions.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks, [moderator].  Hi, everybody, and thank you all for joining.  As we announced earlier today, the Vice President will participate virtually in the Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting July 12th, Washington D.C. time.  The United States is not a member of the PIF, the Pacific Islands Forum, but the Vice President is honored to accept an invitation from Fijian Prime Minister Bainimarama, the current Chair of the PIF, to address the PIF leaders.

We think this invitation speaks to the longstanding and deep partnership the United States has with the Pacific Islands, and our mutual interest in strengthening our relationships.  We have a very strong foundation with the Pacific Islands, including historic ties, deep people-to-people bonds, and shared interests and values.  And we believe that we’re now embarking on a new chapter in this longstanding partnership.

In short, the Vice President will be announcing that we’re significantly stepping up our game in the Pacific Islands.  After this call, we will share with you an embargoed factsheet.  But I can tell you now that the Vice President has a significant set of deliverables that she’ll be announcing to the forum as part of this engagement. 

This new chapter in our relationship will feature increased diplomatic presence on the ground throughout the region, and that’s what most of these announcements are about: our presence and our engagement. 

We’re expanding our footprint and making sure that we have the people and the apparatus in place to deepen our cooperation on a day-to-day basis and to deliver concrete results.  And these deliverables emerge from close consultations with the region in recent weeks and months, and we believe that this series of steps is responsive to their priorities.

So maybe just to summarize them for you: First, we will begin discussions to establish new U.S. embassies in Kiribati and Tonga.  This was a top ask of the region, and we’re delivering because a close partnership requires the regular exchange that comes with having an embassy. 

Second, we’re going to appoint the first-ever U.S. envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum in order to expand our diplomatic footprint, but also to help support a strong and united Pacific Islands Forum. 

Third, we’re going to bring the Peace Corps back to the Pacific.  This includes returning to countries where Peace Corps previously operated, as well as exploring expansion to new Pacific Island countries. 

Fourth, USAID will work toward reestablishing a regional mission in Suva, Fiji, to improve its cooperation with Pacific Island countries.

And then finally, we plan to triple U.S. funding for economic development and ocean resilience in the region.  This support will increase our funding from the current $21 million per year — dollar — 21 million U.S. dollars per year to $60 million per year, which we’ll be requesting from Congress for the next 10 years.  And these funds — these additional funds will help strengthen climate resilience; invest in marine planning and conservation; combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing; and enhance maritime security.

As part of this initiative, we also look forward to concluding negotiations on an updated South Pacific Tuna Treaty, which is the cornerstone of our economic and political cooperation. 

So I think, you know, when you look at that altogether, it’s quite the package of measures designed to underscore our commitment to this region and to facilitate partnership going forward.

The last point on the broader strategic dynamic at play — and we recognize there’s an intense interest in the Pacific Islands among other countries.  And I would just say that what we’re putting on the table is a true partnership based on friendship and respect and transparency.

What we offer is an affirmative, positive agenda to take on short- and long-term challenges together, whether that’s the climate crisis; economic development; IUU — or illegal, unreported, and unregulated — fishing; maritime security; food security; or others. 

With these announcements, the Vice President is putting in place the structure to really make progress on all of these areas that matter to us and to our partners in the region. 

Everything we do with regard to the region will be in consultation with the region.  We’ll listen and consult closely.  That’s how President Biden and Vice President Harris approach our relationships all around the world.  And we’ll continue to engage constructively and transparenc- — transparently with our Pacific Island partners every step of the way.

With that, I’m happy to take a few questions.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  If our moderator could inform our guests the instructions to ask a question.

Q    Hi, can you hear me?  Hello?

MODERATOR:  Yes.  Yes.  We hear you just fine.

Q    Okay, wonderful.  Thank you so much for doing this.  So I — you know, just heard that you announced several deliverables that the Vice President is going to announce tomorrow.  Correct me if I’m wrong: I didn’t hear about the infrastructure or the Build Back Better World initiatives that President Biden announced during NATO Summit.

Is the infrastructure efforts going to expand to the Pacific Islands?  And so, like we see that Solomon Island has had that security pact with China which worries the United States, of course.  Is that part of the deal that we are going to offer more to counter China’s effort in those areas?  Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, I mean, what I announced now is not part of the Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investment that the President announced with his G7 partners recently in Europe.  But I think we’ve made clear that the PGII is a global fund and a global enterprise.  And as we move forward, there are a lot of parts of the world, including this one, that I think you could expect us to look at in terms of infrastructure support.

So there haven’t been PGII announcements.  It was just launched, as we noted, a couple of weeks ago.  But of course, we’re going to be looking to support infrastructure development in this region.

Q    Hi, all.  Thanks so much for the call.  Just to kind of piggyback on that question broadly, I wonder if you can talk about just how the relationship between U.S. and China is factoring into these deliverables in the forum itself.  I know you just said that you recognize that there’s an intense interest in the Pacific Islands, and, of course, a lot of that is about China’s interest in it.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  No, that’s clear and obvious, and that’s why I mentioned it.  But I think our emphasis is on the positive part of our agenda rather than seeing this in terms of competition. 

And we’ve made that clear around the world.  We’re not asking countries to choose; we’re not asking countries not to have relations with China.  It’s a big, important country.

We are focusing on our own engagement and our own interests and our own support.  And of course, contrasts will be made and we’d like to think that contrast looks favorably on us where we’ve been a responsible security actor in the region and (inaudible) the entire Indo-Pacific for many decades and helping to preserve a free and open Indo-Pacific.  And we’ve got important, transparent, supportive economic relationships with these countries, and that’s what we’re trying to build on. 

So this is not about countering any one country or China.  It’s about the positive engagement that these leaders are asking for and we’re trying to be responsive to.  And we’re very proud of what we’re able to announce in terms of strengthening those relationships.

Q    Hi, can you hear me?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, go right ahead.

Q    Great, thanks.  So last year when Biden addressed the forum, he mentioned that the U.S. would dramatically cut its emissions.  And clearly, that hasn’t happened now.  And with the recent Supreme Court ruling, as well as the death of the Build Back Better bill, there’s not a lot of concrete, significant climate pledges the U.S. can offer to the region, at least as of tomorrow.

How is this going to be addressed with the world leaders tomorrow?  Clearly, climate is one of their primary concerns and they’re particularly anxious about the U.S. and Australia being able to deliver on some of its pledges.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, I mean, one of the things I did announce, in terms of the increased assistance to these countries, does have to do with climate adaptation and resilience.  Now, that’s not the same thing as global emissions cuts, but it is something they’re very interested and need, and we want to be supportive of.  And certainly, in the immediate term, that is most important. 

And I would just also stress the Biden-Harris administration remains absolutely committed to the Paris Climate Agreement and meeting those goals.  It’s true that in the past year Congress hasn’t been as supportive as we might like and international progress on this issue hasn’t been what we might like, including support for developing countries from more advanced countries, which we’re strongly supportive of. 

But this administration remains absolutely committed to those goals.  We’re committed to helping the PIF, or the Pacific Islands, deal with the consequences of the climate crisis.  And that’s going to be — you ask what our dialogue with them will be like.  I’m sure they will raise it and we’ll together discuss how we can deal with the climate crisis.  Because without it, these countries are among the most vulnerable in the entire world.

Q    [Inaudible] in the Newsroom, New Zealand.  To what extent does this package reflect U.S. hopes to restore stronger regional engagement in the Pacific Islands Forum from countries like Kiribati and the rest of Micronesia, especially around regional security?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, it definitely reflects our interest in engaging throughout the Indo-Pacific.  I think you’ve seen this administration be extraordinarily active throughout the Indo-Pacific in terms of — including in terms of creating new structures and building on existent ones — the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue; obviously, AUKUS; the new partnership for the Blue Pacific, which is not just U.S. but key partner countries, including Japan and the United Kingdom and Australia and New Zealand — all of us interested in the same thing, which is supporting the Pacific Islands and maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific. 

So, absolutely, it takes place in that context.  And you mentioned Kiribati, which gives me an opportunity to comment on that issue.  We are concerned by reports that Kiribati has decided to withdraw from the PIF.

We think, obviously, that the PIF is stronger when it is united.  And that’s one of the whole points of the organization: that those countries can join together and speak as one in international fora, including on the critical issue of the climate crisis.

So I understand that discussions are still underway to reach an agreement that would allow Kiribati and others to remain in the PIF and keep it as strong as it should be.  And we support those talks and hope they can come to a positive conclusion. 

Obviously, what — everything I’ve outlined in this call will go ahead regardless of how that situation emerges because we’re committed to doing everything I said, in terms of the economic assistance, the embassies and the envoy to the region, and the strengthened Tuna Treaty.  But it will be even stronger, it will all be more successful if a way can be found to keep Kiribati and others in.  So we’re very supportive of that. 

MODERATOR:  All right, thank you to our speaker for taking the time, and thank you to all of you. 

As we mentioned, this call is embargoed until Tuesday, July 12th, at 5:00 a.m. Eastern Time.  And we will follow up with some written materials, which will also be embargoed as well, to those on this call.

So thank you again, everyone, and we’ll be in touch shortly.  Thank you.

END

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