In Pacific islands, US diplomatic push stirs memories of neglect

As United States Vice President Kamala Harris unveiled a major ramping up of US aid and diplomacy in Pacific island countries on Wednesday, she acknowledged that they had not always received the “attention and support that you deserve”.

That is a sentiment with resonance across the region’s sparsely-populated, isolated island states, which are gaining attention as battlegrounds for the heated strategic competition between the US and China after decades of being treated as a diplomatic afterthought.

For many Pacific leaders, the US’s renewed engagement with their region is welcome, if long overdue.

Most Pacific island nations, which are meeting at an ongoing leaders’ summit in Fiji, have a gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of less than $5,000, lack basic infrastructure, and lag developed economies in indicators such as life expectancy, education and health.

Countries such as Vanuatu, Tuvalu, Kiribati, and the Marshall Islands are also among the world’s most vulnerable to climate change, lying just a few metres above sea level.

Speaking after Harris’ announcement, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said the US “is certainly looking a lot more like the Pacific partner we have traditionally held it to be”.

“Obviously the US is late to the party, but as they say, better late than never,” Robert Bohn, an adviser to Vanuatu’s foreign minister and a former legislator, told Al Jazeera.

“I have been telling the USA to get into the game since 1992. More is always better, but a start is always good.”

“Some of it is obviously to counter China, but mostly it is about finally getting back into the game,” Bohn added.

In a video address to Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders’ meeting on Wednesday, Harris said that funding to help the region boost maritime security and tackle illegal fishing and climate change would be tripled to $600 million over a decade, subject to approval by Congress.

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