28 September 2022
Solomon Islands has signalled it won't sign on to an 11-point declaration between the United States and Pacific Island nations, dealing a blow to the White House ahead of a high-profile presidential summit with Pacific leaders in Washington this week.
The ABC has been told that Washington and Pacific Island countries have spent recent weeks negotiating a new joint statement on the partnership between the US and the Pacific states.
The declaration is designed to provide a framework for intensified US engagement in the Pacific.
Washington is moving to ramp up its diplomatic, development and commercial presence in the region, partly in response to China's growing influence in several Pacific nations.
Some Pacific leaders have described the declaration as being "similar" in intent to a more sweeping trade and security deal which China unsuccessfully pursued with ten Pacific Island nations in May.
Washington's proposal covers issues including strengthening US-Pacific ties, tackling climate change, sustainable development, security and preserving the rules-based international order.
Several Pacific nations are expecting to sign the declaration during the historic meeting with President Joe Biden at the White House on September 28 and 29.
It's the first time Pacific nations have been invited to Washington for an in-person summit.
However, several sources stressed that negotiations over the joint declaration are still ongoing.
Solomon Islands to hold off on signing declaration
The ABC has also been told that Solomon Islands sent a diplomatic note to other Pacific Island nations on Monday, announcing it will not sign up to the declaration, and stressing there was no consensus over the document.
The note also said Solomon Islands needed more time to reflect on the proposal, and that the declaration would have to be considered by its national parliament.
The move is likely to consolidate anxieties in both Canberra and Washington about the trajectory of Solomon Islands under Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who has repeatedly berated traditional partners including Australia and New Zealand, while drawing closer to China.
Earlier this year Solomon Islands also signed a deeply controversial security pact with Beijing, although Mr Sogavare has repeatedly ruled out allowing China to establish a military presence in the country.
It's not clear what impact Solomon Islands' decision to hold off on the declaration will have on negotiations over the text.
Several other Pacific nations have welcomed increasing US engagement in the region, while also making it clear that it must be on their terms.
Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo said there had been a "very involved process" to develop the document, which was initiated by the White House.
"Our officials have been going back and forth with the United States," Mr Panuelo said.
He said it focused on bolstering Pacific regionalism, tackling climate change, advancing economic growth, and supporting disaster preparation and response.
It also includes addressing COVID-19 and other health concerns, responding to the legacies of war in the Pacific and promoting nuclear non-proliferation.
Washington has been increasingly uneasy about the way China has expanded commercial and security links in the Pacific, suggesting it could undermine sovereignty across the region.
New agreement 'similar' to China pact
Earlier this year, China sought a multilateral trade and security deal with ten Pacific nations, but this was shelved at a meeting between Beijing and Pacific leaders in May.
Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata'afa said the agreements were similar in intent, but added that the US had been more willing to negotiate with the Pacific as a whole.
Initially, only Pacific countries that had formal diplomatic ties with the US were invited to this week's summit, which excluded Cook Islands, Niue, New Caledonia or French Polynesia.
However the invitation was extended to those countries, as well as Australia and New Zealand, after lobbying from Pacific Island leaders.
"We've been insisting that if partners wish to talk to us, collectively, then they need to do it through the modalities of the Pacific [Islands] Forum," Fiame said.
"When the Chinese were proposing something similar, we were giving them that message, but it didn't seem to filter through or they weren't willing to take that on board."
No interest in US military presence
Fiame said the declaration between Pacific countries and the US was "pretty general" and prioritised climate change, which is seen as the region's biggest security threat.
She said there were also significant discussions about maritime security.
"Not only the protection of the fisheries, but also the maritime boundaries," she said.
The Samoan prime minister pressed the importance of maintaining peace in the region, and said she would not like to see increased US military presence in the Pacific.
"When you begin to talk about defence, you're sort of looking at scenarios where other countries or forces will be coming into the Pacific," she said.
"We wouldn't like to encourage that in any way."
Economic investment from US needed
Other nations are pushing for more economic investment from the US.
"Our biggest investment partner right now is China … it shouldn't be that way," said Palau President Surangel Whipps Junior.
"We don't even have diplomatic relations with China. But the number one investors are coming from China. Before COVID-19, the number one tourists were from China."
Mr Whipps said climate change was stifling his country's economic development.
"Palau was actually making some progress, I'd say in 2010," he said.
"We were on the right trajectory to go somewhere, then what do we get here? Three typhoons in the last 10 years, which we never had before.
"Every time we tried to dig ourselves out of the hole, we've got problems with climate change that send us backwards."
Leaders want 'more than just a photo opportunity'
Mr Whipps said he hoped the meeting with Mr Biden would be "more than just a photo opportunity at the White House".
"I hope it's substantial programs and initiatives that really build that partnership," he said.
Director of the Lowy Institute's Pacific Islands Program Meg Keen agreed the US summit with Pacific leaders was very significant, but must lead to real outcomes.
"The signing of the declaration is important because it's a signal. But more important is what actually gets delivered over time," Dr Keen said.
"There have been promises, in fact, on a number of these types of topics in the past, and there hasn't been strong delivery."
She said it was encouraging to see US open embassies in Pacific Island nations, including Solomon Islands, Kiribati and Tonga.
But she said financing promises made in this week's summit would be a challenge for Washington.
"Those commitments have to be translated into action, and that needs financing, and the financing has to go to Congress and it has to be approved," she said.
"There can be quite a lag time between the provenance and the delivery."
Dr Keen said there were key differences between the US-Pacific declaration and China's proposed trade and security deal with the region.
"There's some overlap, and we can see that in climate change, economic development, and so on," she said.
"I think what the United States is trying to show is a strong commitment to development, and they're trying to pull back on security.
"The regional proposal with the Pacific [and China] … had a much stronger security element to it."
Source: ABC and Solomon Times Online.