Joe Biden

Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials to Preview the U.S.-Pacific Islands Forum Summit

September 22, 2023

Via Teleconference

3:35 P.M. EDT

MODERATOR: Thank you. And thanks everyone for joining the call to preview the U.S.-Pacific Islands Forum Summit.

As a reminder, this call is on background, attributable to "senior administration officials." It is embargoed until Sunday, September 24th, at 5:00 a.m. Eastern.

For your awareness, not for your reporting: On the call today, we have [senior administration official] and [senior administration official].

With that, I'll turn it over to you, [senior administration official], to kick us off, and then we'll take some questions at the end.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. Thank you very much, [senior administration official]. And thank you all for joining us here on a busy week as we return from the U.N. General Assembly and also with Ukrainian friends in town.

So, on -- over the weekend and on Monday and Tuesday, the President is hosting a return visit of the Pacific Island leaders to Washington, D.C.

It's our second summit in a year, in which he is following up on his pledge to take our commitment and our engagement in the Pacific region to the next level. And as we've stated all along: We've tried to design a program of active- -- activities and engagement that are intended to meet the needs of the Pacific Islands people.

So, over the course of a couple of days here in Washington, there will be efforts to underscore our commitments to a variety of things in technology, in -- in matters associated with fishing, in education, in infrastructure. [Senior administration official] will go through all the specifics that we're rolling out over the course of two days there.

I do want to just say that we -- we have a day in advance of -- of the formal meetings in Washington, D.C. The leaders will be riding on a special train -- Amtrak -- from New York to Baltimore. They will be the guests of the Ravens at the stadium for the football game. They will be there on the field, in which they will be recognized for their roles as American friends in the Indo-Pacific. We will celebrate the 80th anniversary of the -- some of the most difficult fighting in the Pacific.

After the game, they will then go to a Coast Guard cutter ship in the Baltimore Harbor. They will be briefed by the Commandant of the Coast Guard on all the many issues that we're doing with the Pacific Island leaders to combat illegal fishing and to manage maritime domains effectively.

And then, they'll come to Washington and there will be a series of engagements on Monday and Tuesday, beginning with an official set of meetings with the President -- a lunch, a number of engagements with senior members of the administration, and basically engagements around town. I'm going to ask [senior administration official] to go through some of the specifics of both the schedule and also the deliverables.

But I would say that I think what the Biden administration has been able to do is to step up our game considerably in a short period of time in the Indo-Pacific.

We have deep moral, strategic, and historic interests here. And I think we're reaffirming that promise.

And so, you will see, over the course of a few days, our commitment to reopen embassies. USAID is back in force in the Pacific. The Peace Corps has -- has arrived in many of the islands that they'd served with in previous periods. We have the engagement of a number of philanthropies and business groups who also are interested in engaging more deeply in the Pacific.

And we're thrilled to have them back here in Washington. And I think this will be a important and engaging three-day set of events.

[Senior administration official].

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks so much, [senior administration official]. And thanks to you all for joining us today.

I'll just add some brief embroidery to [senior administration official's] remarks. I'll start with a few more details on the official summit program and then give you some highlights of the rather meaty deliverables list that we'll be releasing on Monday.

The official program, as [senior administration official] indicated, starts on Monday morning when the President will welcome all of the Pacific Island Forum leaders to the White House. Monday morning will be taken outside their summit meeting, followed by a set of family photos to be taken by all the leaders together.

The President will host all the leaders for lunch at the White House. And they'll continue their conversation over that working lunch before the leaders depart the White House for their afternoon programs.

That afternoon program will include a roundtable with Special Envoy for Climate, Secretary John Kerry, focused on combating climate change and building resilience -- which, of course, is one of the top concerns and existential concerns for many of our Pacific Island friends.

And that evening, Secretary Blinken will host a dinner at the State Department along with ambassador to the United Nations, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, in which he will celebrate all the leaders of the Pacific Islands and, in particular, recognize two new Pacific Islands diplomatically with whom the United States has not previously had diplomatic relations: the Cook Islands and Niue.

The second day of the program will kick off with a breakfast that Secretary Kerry will host alongside USAID Administrator Samantha Power focused on climate and oceans. That will bring the Pacific Island leaders into conversation with the philanthropic community.

Later that day, members of Congress will host the Pacific Island leaders on Capitol Hill to talk about lots of business that we all do together. Our relationship with the Pacific Islands really does involve a very deep partnership with Congress. So, we're thrilled that that is coming together.

Later that afternoon, we'll hold a business roundtable that will feature Secretary Janet Yellen, as well as some of our other economic leaders from the administration, with a focus on how the economies of the Pacific can promote trade and investment.

Finally, that evening, we'll conclude with a barbecue hosted by the Australian ambassador and the government of Australia, in which we'll celebrate people-to-people ties between the United States and Pacific Island nations as to include our strengthening ties with the Peace Corps. And that piece of the program will feature the Second Gentleman.

Before turning the floor over to your questions, I'll also just note a few of the top deliverables that you can expect to see roll out on Monday. There are far too many to count, so I'm just (inaudible) here, but look forward to digging in more in the discussion.

First, as we've already noted, we're going to be taking an important step to recognize two new Pacific Island nations with whom the United States has not previously had diplomatic relations: the Cook Islands and Niue.

The Cook Islands is currently playing an important leadership role inside of the Pacific Islands forum. So, we think this is an important step not just for these two islands, but for our relationship with the whole Pacific.

Second, we're going to be marking the remarkable progress that we have made towards revitalizing our diplomatic presence in the Pacific Islands. You'll recall that it was not very long ago that the United States announced that we would be opening new embassies. And since that announcement, we have done so already in the Solomon Islands and Tonga.

We'll also be in a position to note quick progress towards opening an embassy in Vanuatu early next year, and the opening of a new USAID regional Pacific mission in Fiji -- all of these efforts to rebuild our diplomatic presence and our ability to deliver for Pacific Island nations.

We'll be unveiling a deliverable that has U.S. government dollars behind it to provide secure, undersea cable connectivity for Pacific Island nations, something that many of these nations need where Internet speed and connectivity is not as reliable as it should be, and where we all benefit if our Pacific Island friends can be in closer conversation. And so, we're very excited to be able to provide for this important form of infrastructure.

We'll also be announcing many million dollars more in other infrastructure projects that are high on our list of Pacific Island projects that our Pacific Island friends have drawn our attention to.

Further, the Quad will be bringing its Maritime Domain Awareness initiative to the Pacific Islands with a program worth more than $10 million that will help to improve Maritime Domain Awareness throughout the Pacific Islands, working closely with Pacific Islands institutions. This is a program that the Quad announced in May of 2022 in Tokyo and has done quick work to stand up now in Southeast Asia, in South Asia, and in the Pacific Islands.

It's also the first official partnership between the Quad and a Pacific Island institution. So we're really excited to be able to roll that out.

We'll also have a number of substantial programs in the category of people-to-people ties. That includes a young leaders training and education program that is set to roll out at Johns Hopkins SAIS in just a few weeks' time. It includes an initiative called Sister Cities, for which we'll be pairing American cities with Pacific Island cities to bring our people together across the Pacific Ocean.

And of course, it includes a raft of new programming coming out of the Peace Corps now that the Peace Corps has been able to return to a number of Pacific islands and reinvigorate its historic role there, particularly in Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga, where, once again, Peace Corps is working side by side with local counterparts on education, development, and climate initiatives.

All in all, the message that we're seeking to send with this program and with these deliverables is that the United States and this administration are following up on our Pacific promises and making them real.

We put a stake in the ground about two years ago saying that we would significantly revamp our presence and renovate our ties in this part of the region. And this summit, building upon the one before it, is showing that the President is making good on his commitment and showing up in ways that benefit our friends in the Pacific and advance all of our interests together.

So, I'll stop there and look forward to your questions.

Q: Thanks very much. I need to change my last name, I think.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You really do.

Q: I know. I know. Two questions. So, one on the summit. Can you talk a little bit about what the U.S. Coast Guard has done since the first summit? Is there any way you can kind of give us the metrics of the types of things it's done? And how do you measure the success of those efforts?

And then secondly, I just want to ask quickly about India. If the Canadian investigation shows that the Indian government was somehow involved in the murder of a Sikh activist, how is that going to impact your efforts to move ahead with India in all the areas that you're trying to do so?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Demetri, I'm just not going to have anything for you on the second question, and we'll look for a venue for an appropriate engagement on that.

On the first question, I'll at least start you out and say that I think it would be fair to say that the institution -- the institutions, probably the Peace Corps and the Coast Guard, are those that are most respected, almost beloved, in the Pacific. The role that they play in terms of supporting territorial integrity and issues associated with fishing rights is one of the most important innovations in -- in monitoring these vast oceanic spaces.

And so, the so-called shiprider agreements, which allows the U.S. Coast Guard cutter to take on the character of the national units, with the participation of a crew member from another country, allows the Coast Guard to assist in patrolling for issues associated with illegal fishing. And those missions are deeply effective at assisting with what can only be described as rampant illegal fishing in the Pacific.

I'll let [senior administration official] give you a sense of the -- you know, what the uptick of engagement has been like.

I will say the Coast Guard has been a consistent player. Even when other elements of the American engagement lapse, the Peace Corps -- excuse me, the Coast Guard remained deeply engaged all along in the Pacific.

[Senior administration official].

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, [senior administration official]. Demetri, I'll offer to to put fine point on it by pointing to a program that [senior administration official] was alluding to. Not this year's presidential budget, but the one prior to that would be FY23. We worked with Coast Guard to help them to move an additional training platform out into the Indo-Pacific.

That is a multinational training platform that is going to be internationally crewed, has been being refurbished since that budget, and is ready to depart the United States in just a few short weeks to make its way to the Indo-Pacific, where it will be rotating through the Pacific Islands.

That vessel, which is known as the Harriet Lane, will allow for different Pacific Island nations to train on the vessel, to place crew members on the vessel so that we and the Pacific Islanders can all be working together on missions -- whether that's responding to illegal fishing or responding to climate events, natural disasters, or enforcing the law at sea.

So, this type of platform, I think, is a great example of what Coast Guard does in the region. As [senior administration official] said, the demand for our Coast Guard presence from the Pacific Islands really can't be stated. But this particular platform and the budget bump we were able to get to provide it is a great example of where we're trying to continue to head in our work with Coast Guard in the Indo-Pacific, because Pacific Island friends continue to make clear that there are few programs that they value more.

Q: Hi, it's Trevor here. So, thanks for taking the question. One, I was just curious if there was any comment from you all around Vanuatu, I understand, skipping this event because of some domestic concerns about them drawing closer to the United States and its allies.

And then I was also curious if you could talk a little bit about the Marshall Islands and the Compact of Free Association with them. I know, that's been underway for some time. You know, what's the -- what's the holdup there? And are -- do expect that that will address the U.S. nuclear legacy there? Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Look, I'll just start with some general comments and let [senior administration official] continue, if I can.

So, we have been deeply, intensively engaged in negotiations on the COFA negotiations between the three North Pacific Island countries. And I think we will be able to indicate on Monday, both at the White House and the State Department, that very substantial progress has been made. And we are prepared to take forward these critical compacts with strong partners in the Northern Pacific. And we're confident that we're going to be able to get this done.

And it -- the agreements will deal with a very broad range of both the current and legacy issues that are present in the Northern Pacific Island nations -- each different, but each important.

I think my understanding of why the prime minister of Vanuatu is not coming is that there is a vote of no confidence that is scheduled for next week, exactly when he would be in the United States. And I think, in the past, those actions have often led to the government falling. And so, I think, you know, there are probably very good reasons why they were determined to -- the PM was determined to remain.

It is also the case that other members of their delegation will be with us in Baltimore and Washington next week.

[Senior administration official.]

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, [senior administration official]. Not a whole lot to add your answer. My understanding of the Vanuatu schedule is very much the same.

Thanks, Trevor.

Q: Hey, thanks so much for taking my question. [Senior administration official] or [senior administration official], can you -- just to follow up on Trevor's question, are you confident that the COFA deal with Marshall Islands will be met before the September 30th deadline?

And also, just on logistics: Aside from Vanuatu, how many leaders have confirmed attendance? Can you confirm whether Kiribati and Marshall Island will attend?

And also, Solomon Islands. As we recall last year, he refused to sign the U.S. Pacific Partnership Strategy. If you can update us on that and whether he will attend.

Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. So, look, let me just start off by saying, we're working around the clock on these negotiations, and we are working intensively and in good faith. And our intention will be to close these negotiations in a way that meet the interests of the United States and our island partners just as soon as possible. And we'll have more to say about that next week.

I'll let [senior administration official] tell you -- we have very, very good attendance, and we're quite pleased. And where prime ministers have not been able to attend, they've, in almost every case, sent a foreign minister.

I think it'd be fair to say that the United States is disappointed that Prime Minister Sogavare has -- he has been in New York this week but is returning to the Solomons over the weekend. And I think we're disappointed that he has chosen not to come to this very special PIF Summit between the United States and the Pacific Island nations.

[Senior administration official], do you want to go through any other specifics just to get a sense? I -- we'll also say that we have very senior participation from both Australia and New Zealand, obviously given their key role as members of the PIF as well. [Senior administration official]?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, [senior administration official]. I'll just say that we are expecting great participation at the highest levels from at Kiribati and RMI.

Q: Thanks for doing this. Another follow-up on the compacts, actually. I mean, you need Congress -- right? -- both in the case of Marshall Islands and in FSM with their deadlines, you know, just a few days after this summit.

I mean, you said you're confident, [senior administration official], that you can get this negotiated, but are you actually confident that there will be no lapse in the compacts (inaudible)?

I don't know if you're seeing the same things in Congress right now that I am, but it doesn't look like there's a lot of progress happening at the moment. I mean, are you worried about the consequences of that -- of those lapsing before they can get through Congress, on the first one?

And second, just big-picture question, can you talk about the degree to which, you know, this is not all to do with China, but that, you know, competition with China has motivated this renewed engagement with the region. I mean, has it been a positive consequence of U.S.-China competition in the Indo-Pacific?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, I'm going to let [senior administration official] -- [senior administration official] has got a very good answer on that second question, and I often use it. Better for her to kind of give you the larger sense about what animates our purpose and our engagement.

So, all I would say about the COFA negotiations: We are deeply aware of the stakes and the challenges. And we're doing everything possible in our negotiations with Island nations to conclude a strong deal as quickly as possible. We are also in close consultation with the relevant committees on Capitol Hill about the challenges that October 1 potentially poses. And we're working closely inside the U.S. government on potential contingency planning.

I don't think I have, really, anything more to tell you about this. We are seized with its importance, and we know how important it is for our continuing partnership with each of these countries.

[Senior administration official]?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, [senior administration official]. On the China question and the Pacific Islands, you know, I think the way that we like to think about it is that our engagement with the Pacific Islands is really not about who we are against but what we are for. And what we are for is kind of what's on display throughout this summit on Monday, Tuesday, in all the deliverables you'll see, in our direct statement, and so forth.

I think we genuinely believe and feel that our national interests are tied to a free, open, vibrant, and dynamic Pacific region and that the United States is a Pacific power that is here to stay. All the investments we are making, all of the policy we are undertaking are consistent with those goals.

But there's also no question that there is some role that the PRC has played in all this. No question that it's assertiveness and influence, including in this region, has been a factor that requires us to sustain our strategic focus. But what we're really focused on doing is showing our Pacific Island friends that the United States, working with likeminded partners, can provide viable alternatives that will work for Pacific Island nations.

So, we keep ourselves focused on the affirmative, not only because we believe that's what our Pacific Island friends want. We believe that's genuinely what underpins these relationships.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And I would also just point out, just to build on [senior administration official's] very good answer, guys, is that I think another element of our approach has been to work much, much more closely with allies and partners.

And I would just turn your attention to what's occurring in New York as we speak. The partners of the Blue Pacific engagement, hosted by Secretary Blinken -- we are working much more closely with Australia, New Zealand, Japan, now South Korea, Great Britain, Germany, Canada, and others on efforts to coordinate and step up our engagement across the region.

And so, our efforts are to support specific initiatives laid out in key documents of the Pacific Island Forum that are designed to address needs of the Pacific in climate change, in training, in infrastructure.

And so, our efforts have been to work with likemindeds to support these initiatives. And we believe that, you know, frankly, it's possible to do good and compete at the same time. And that's what we're seeking to do.

MODERATOR: Thank you both. That's all the time we have left for this. Thank you, [senior administration official] and [senior administration official], for taking the time. And thanks, everyone else, for hopping on as well.

As a reminder, this call was on background, attributable to "senior administration officials," and it's embargoed until Sunday, September 24th, at 5:00 a.m. Eastern.

Thanks, everyone.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We really appreciate it. Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, guys.

4:02 P.M. EDT

Joseph R. Biden, Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials to Preview the U.S.-Pacific Islands Forum Summit Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/365594

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