While President Joe Biden was on the phone Saturday trying to persuade Russia not to invade Ukraine, his top diplomat was wrapping up a weekend trip across the Asia-Pacific region.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visits to Australia, Fiji and a meeting with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts in Hawaii signaled that the region remains the U.S. administration’s foreign policy priority even as crises erupt elsewhere in the world.

The White House also released a new Indo-Pacific Strategy Friday that criticized China’s efforts to extend its Pacific influence and laid out a broad action plan to strengthen the U.S. presence in the region, including opening new embassies and consulates, expanding the Peace Corps and upping its investment in Pacific islands.

“That strategy reflects the fundamental truth that, more any other part of the world, what happens in this region is going to shape the lives of Americans and people around the world in this 21st century,” Blinken said Saturday after meeting with his colleagues from Seoul and Tokyo to discuss the growing nuclear threat from North Korea.

President Joe Biden met with the leaders of Australia, India and Japan for an in-person Quadrilateral Security Dialogue meeting in Washington D.C. in September 2021. His new Indo-Pacific strategy includes strengthening this alliance and launching a new fellowship for citizens of the four nations. White House/2021

“The strategy sets out several concrete ways that we’ll work to turn this vision into reality – benchmarks that we can hold ourselves to over the next couple of years,” he added.

The new Biden plan comes as Congress considers legislation that would invest an additional $100 million in the Pacific region, according to an estimate by U.S. Rep. Ed Case from Hawaii who has been advocating for more attention on the network of Pacific island nations that also are being wooed by China.

“Our return to the Indo-Pacific now, even as we continue to work relentlessly to resolve the crisis in Ukraine, is, in itself, a demonstration of our commitment to staying focused on this region. And that includes the Pacific Islands,” Blinken said during a previous press conference in Fiji.

In a roughly hourlong phone call on Saturday, Biden warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that the United States and its allies would react “decisively and impose swift and severe costs” on Russia if it invades Ukraine.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill this month known as the COMPETES Act that includes several Pacific-focused provisions, including $40 million over the next five years to support emergency preparedness in the Pacific.

Disaster preparedness is critical for many Pacific nations and territories that routinely experience typhoons and are dealing with the effects of climate change. Tonga is still recovering from a tsunami that destroyed many homes and disrupted an undersea cable that the community relies on for telecommunications.

“We have entered a consequential new period of American foreign policy that will demand more of the United States in the Indo-Pacific than has been asked of us since the Second World War,” Biden’s new strategy said. “Our vital interests in the region have become ever-clearer just as they have become more difficult to protect.”

Both the Biden plan and the House legislation also emphasize increasing maritime security in the region, with the Biden administration promising to increase the Coast Guard presence in the Pacific.

“Our country is a maritime nation,” said retired Rear Adm. Peter Gumataotao, director of the Honolulu-based Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, which is part of the Department of Defense.

Maritime security is particularly important in the Pacific given the South China Sea is a key passage for ships transporting goods and services and the ability to trade with other countries is essential for economic stability, Gumataotao said.

“The Indo-Pacific is the 21st century region of consequence,” he said.

In its new strategy, the Biden administration lambasted China’s “bullying” of its neighbors in the South China Sea and said the country’s “coercion and aggression spans the globe, but it is most acute in the Indo-Pacific.”

China “is also undermining human rights and international law, including freedom of navigation, as well as other principles that have brought stability and prosperity to the Indo-Pacific,” the Biden administration said.

The strategy was released Friday as Blinken visited Fiji and announced plans for a new embassy in the Solomon Islands. Reuters reported that Blinken met virtually with 18 Pacific island countries and that his visit coincided with Micronesia temporarily rescinding its withdrawal from the Pacific Island Forum.

The Biden strategy also states its intention to conclude delayed negotiations with Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands.

The three nations have international agreements with the U.S. known as the Compacts of Free Association that give the U.S. military strategic denial rights over their land and surrounding air and waters, but the Biden administration has been slow to wrap up talks about extending economic provisions of the agreements that will expire soon.

Case repeatedly has raised concerns about the delays. In an interview last week, the congressman said the Pacific region is not only a critical part of the world but also critical to Hawaii, which is part of the Pacific ohana.

He thinks the $100 million investment in the COMPETES Act is important but still insufficient.

“These very large international issues and challenges are right in our backyard,” he said. “We obviously have a stake in them and we have a role to play.”

Case believes it was a major mistake for former President Donald Trump’s administration to downsize the Peace Corps in the Pacific and downsize embassies and consulates.

The legislation that passed the House also included $50 million over the next five years that would go toward a new requirement for U.S. agencies to invest in climate resilient development projects in the region.

That new climate resiliency strategy would also involve the U.S. using its vote at the World Bank and other global financial institutions, Case said.

James Viernes, regional engagement and development officer at the Pacific Islands Development Program at the East-West Center, said it’s notable that the legislation recognizes the Pacific islands as a regional bloc and seeks to expand engagement with the Pacific countries and territories.

“The engagement is important if the intent of the United States is to continue its presence in the Pacific for strategic or other purposes,” he said.

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