A measure that would expand U.S. influence in Pacific Island nations has cleared a key committee in the House of Representatives as lawmakers move to boost America’s competitiveness with China.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee approved the Ensuring American Global Leadership and Engagement Act on Thursday after incorporating several portions of a separate bill on long-term engagement in the Pacific that was sponsored by Hawaii Congressman Ed Case.

The measure would authorize $250 million over the next five years for efforts to address the impact of climate change and increase U.S. security assistance with a focus on tackling illegal fishing and transnational crimes. It also would authorize another $200 million over the next five years to implement an emergency preparedness initiative for the Pacific Islands.

Case has argued that the U.S. government is neglecting its relationships with Pacific Island nations, and leaving a void that China can exploit. Mark Edward Harris/Civil Beat

Case welcomed the inclusion of much of his Boosting Long-Term U.S. Engagement in the Pacific Act, better known as the BLUE Pacific Act, which he called a “signature foreign policy package to reassert U.S. global leadership and engagement.”

“This sends a powerful message to our critical Pacific Islands partners and allies that our country values our relationships,” he said in a press release on Tuesday.

BLUE Pacific was a pet project for Case who traveled extensively across the region meeting with officials, diplomats and community leaders across the Pacific Islands while crafting the proposed bill. Case had for years warned that the U.S. government was neglecting its relationships in the Pacific and allowing Chinese interests to fill the void.

Case first introduced the act last year, but it was mostly ignored by Congress as lawmakers focused on the catastrophic impact of the coronavirus pandemic and civil unrest.

However, last year also saw a rise of regional tensions as the Chinese military increasingly clashed with its neighbors over disputed territories. The Chinese government also went on a major diplomatic push that included bringing Kiribati — a Pacific Island nation just south of Hawaii — into its Belt and Road network.

When Case revived the BLUE Pacific Act in May leaders from Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and other Pacific Islands issued statements in support of the bill urging American lawmakers to approve it.

Diplomats from other regional powers, including Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan, also expressed support.

Now approved by the Foreign Affairs Committee, the EAGLE Act will go to a wider floor vote.

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