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Blinken: U.S. plans to expand presence in the Pacific Islands

By Calley Hair
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to the media during a press conference at the Fairmont Hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, in December 2021. File Photo by Mast Irham/EPA-EFE
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to the media during a press conference at the Fairmont Hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, in December 2021. File Photo by Mast Irham/EPA-EFE

Feb. 12 (UPI) -- During a visit to Fiji on Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he expects the U.S. to see a "long-term future" in the region.

His remarks, made during a press conference alongside Acting Fijian Prime Minister Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, also included pledges to assist the region with climate change and access to COVID-19 vaccines.

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"We see our long-term future in the Indo-Pacific," Blinken said. "It's as simple and basic as that."

Blinken additionally stated that the United States would soon open an embassy in the capital city of the Solomon Islands, another nation in the region located around 200 miles east of Papua New Guinea.

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"No region on Earth will affect the lives and livelihoods of Americans more than the Indo-Pacific, which accounts for 60 percent of the global economy, two-thirds of all economic growth over the last five years," Blinken continued.

"Every defining issue of the 21st century runs through this region: the climate crisis, global health, the future of technology, whether nations will be free to chart their own path or be subject to coercion by more powerful nations."

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Blinken's visit marked the first time a U.S. secretary of state has traveled to Fiji since 1985. His remarks alluded to a growing unease among the U.S. leaders eying the Pacific's island nations -- that China is expanding its political and economic influence in the region.

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"While there are important differences between Pacific island countries, there is a clear understanding, even if they don't admit it, that they are caught up in an intensifying geopolitical rivalry," Iati Iati, a senior lecturer and Pacific security fellow at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, told the New York Times on Saturday.

The presence of the U.S. in the Pacific Islands -- a sprawling region that encompasses Hawaii, New Zealand and East Asia -- has been sporadic for decades. While military forces set up bases during World War II, engagement within the island nations has grown sparser since.

During his administration, officials under former President Donald Trump expressed concern that China would expand its influence in the Pacific and box the United States out of the region, making it difficult to open or maintain military bases in the event of a war in Asia. In 2019, Mike Pompeo became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit the Federated States of Micronesia, Insider reported.

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Officials under President Joe Biden have presented similar worries, the Washington Post reported on Friday. Blinken's visit -- which also includes stops in Japan and South Korea -- is part of a new strategy to strengthen alliances in the region.

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