1 of 4 | President Joe Biden (R) smiles with Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown as Biden hosts the Pacific Islands Forum at the White House in Washington on Monday. Photo by Yuri Gripas/UPI | License Photo
Sept. 25 (UPI) -- During the second annual Pacific Island Summit at the White House on Monday the United States for the first time recognized Niue and the Cook Islands as sovereign and independent states.
The summit, created to strengthen the U.S. engagement in the Far East amongst rising tensions with China and North Korea, also was attended by Australia and New Zealand and others.
U.S. President Joe Biden previously had pledged $810 million to support major industries and strengthen defense in the island nations where the United States has been seeking new security agreements.
"Niue plays a critical and constructive role in the Pacific, including supporting the region's sustainable development, security, and marine protection and ocean conservation," Biden said in a statement.
"Today's announcement will enable us to deepen our cooperation with Niue on these challenges and more -- from tackling the climate crisis to protecting maritime borders and marine resources to building sustainable economic growth to maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific region."
Biden said the United States has a long history of cooperation with the Cook Islands dating back to World War II, when the U.S. military built airport runways on the northernmost atoll Penrhyn and in Aitutaki.
"Today's announcement will enable us to expand the scope of this enduring partnership as we seek to tackle the challenges that matter most to our peoples' lives -- from countering illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, to combatting climate change, to building inclusive economic growth, to advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific region, and beyond," Biden said.
The Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare skipped the summit after attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week. Vanuatu Prime Minister Sato Kilman faced a no-confidence vote in the nation's parliament and did not attend.
Sogavare's absence that was especially notable after his country signed an agreement with China in July that laid the groundwork for their strategic cooperation on a range of security and law enforcement efforts.
Instead, Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele attended in place of Sogavare, who said he had urgent government matters to attend to at home.
Administration officials said they were "disappointed" that Sogavare had "chosen not to come to this very special" two-day summit, while the other attendees got together Sunday for a Baltimore Ravens game, where they were recognized as "American friends in the Indo-Pacific."
Biden and the remaining leaders sat down with administration officials and lawmakers in Congress Monday to discuss the growing military threat posed by Beijing as well as North Korea's expanding nuclear program.
The president formed the bloc one year ago in response to China turning more aggressive toward its neighbors in the region while taking steps to expand communist influence far beyond its borders.
The summit served as "an opportunity for the president to strengthen ties with the Pacific Islands and discuss how we address complex global challenges like tackling the existential threat of climate change, advancing economic growth and promoting sustainable development," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during a Sunday press briefing.
In his speech to the U.N. last week, Biden said the United States would not seek conflict with China but would "push back on aggression and intimidation" by America's biggest trading partner.
Biden viewed the summit as a way to strategically reengage with the entire Pacific region as Beijing, Moscow and Pyongyang have stiffened their alliance amid the war in Ukraine, the White House said.
"There's also no question that there is some role that the [China] has played in all this," administration officials said. "No question that its 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 like-minded partners, can provide viable alternatives that will work for Pacific island nation," they added.
The meeting comes on the heels of the Quad meeting on Saturday, in which the foreign ministers of the United States, Australia, India and Japan called for stronger security cooperation between Pacific nations in an effort to deter a potential weapons deal between Russia and North Korea.