U.S. negotiator says Biden would be warmly welcomed in Pacific
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States needs to accelerate diplomatic "catch up" with the Pacific island region in the face of Chinese competition, a U.S. diplomat said on Friday, adding that he was sure President Joe Biden would be warmly welcomed there if he decided to visit.
Joseph Yun, a special presidential envoy who leads renegotiation of agreements with three Pacific island states, was asked at a U.S. think tank about what officials from Papua New Guinea say are plans by Biden to make a brief stop there on May 22.
"Obviously for the Pacific, I am sure they would welcome President Biden, if he were to go there," Yun told the Hudson Institute.
"I don't think that decision has been fully made," he said while adding: "It is a good thing whenever heads of state get engaged on new issues."
A spokesperson from the PNG prime minister's office told Reuters on Thursday that Biden will stop in the capital Port Moresby for three hours on the way from a G7 meeting in Japan to Australia to attend the a summit of the Quad countries - the United States, Japan, India and Australia.
A Pacific islands source told Reuters that Biden was also expected to meet with more than a dozen Pacific islands leaders, but the White House National Security Council has not responded to request for comment on the plans.
Yun said the level of Chinese coercion in the region that is crucial to U.S. national security, but that had been neglected by the United States, is concerning.
"So now we're playing ... a little bit of catch up, I would say, and but you know, we need to accelerate our catch up."
Yun has been leading talks to renew so-called Compact for Free Association (COFA) agreements with the Marshall Islands, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia under which the United States retains responsibility for the islands' defense and gains exclusive access to huge strategic swaths of the Pacific. The deals are due expire this year and next.
Yun said the "topline" agreements in the negotiations with the nations would provide them with a total of about $6.5 billion over 20 years.
He said he was very optimistic the agreements would be finalized and that the U.S. Congress would approve them in a short time, but there is still some hard work ahead.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; writing by Jasper Ward; Editing by Alistair Bell)