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US moves to open fourth new Pacific embassy, speculation mounts Joe Biden could visit region

ABC News (AU) logo ABC News (AU) 24/03/2023 By foreign affairs reporter Stephen Dziedzic

Top White House Asia advisor Kurt Campbell has confirmed the United States has moved to open a fourth new embassy in the Pacific, as speculation mounts that US President Joe Biden could pay a historic visit to the region as soon as May.

Mr Campbell told journalists in Vanuatu this week that the Biden Administration was fast-tracking efforts to open an embassy in the capital, Port Vila.

The US has already reopened its embassy in Solomon Islands, and is also planning to open new diplomatic missions in both Tonga and Kiribati.

Mr Campbell said the push to reinvigorate and expand the US diplomatic presence across the Pacific showed that the Biden Administration was intent on doing more to help Pacific nations tackle a range of challenges, including climate change, drug smuggling and illegal fishing.

"We are determined to take the necessary steps to step-up our own game. We recognise that there have been periods where we have not been as deeply engaged as we should have been," he said.

Mr Campbell acknowledged there was a "degree of strategic competition in the Pacific" but denied the intensified US engagement was driven by a desire to push back on China's growing influence in the region.

"We do not seek a new Cold War. We do not seek confrontation," he said.

"Our role is to address the specific, urgent needs of the people in the Pacific Islands."

Last year, the US Congress passed an act authorising funding for new missions in Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Kiribati.

Mr Campbell said that the US administration was determined to move quickly to build up a bigger footprint, including in Port Vila.

"We have our advance team coming [to Vanuatu] almost immediately to start scouting and to take the necessary steps. If we had our way, [we would open it] tomorrow," he said.

"But there are some initial steps that we have to take, with respect to the appropriate properties, security and the like."

Mr Campbell also visited Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Fiji on his latest trip through the Pacific.

Biden heading to region for Quad

In Solomon Islands, Mr Campbell indicated that the US was close to bringing Peace Corp volunteers back into the country, while flagging that the US coast guard was looking for opportunities to extend assistance to the country.

In Fiji, he met with Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, who said that Fiji was "keen" to reopen its embassy in Washington, "in recognition of the important cooperation between the two nations".

The US been steadily ramping-up its Pacific engagement for several years, but its efforts have taken on more urgency since China signed a security agreement with Solomon Islands last year.

Mr Biden hosted Pacific Island leaders at a major summit in Washington last September and, earlier this year, Micronesian leaders said the Pacific would soon host Mr Biden at a return summit in the region.

Two Pacific Island government sources told the ABC Mr Biden might visit the Pacific in May.

The US president is already set to visit the region later that month for the Quad leaders summit in Sydney with Anthony Albanese, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Mr Modi has already flagged that he's planning to meet Pacific Island leaders on May 22 in Papua New Guinea, just days before the Quad meeting.

One Pacific Island source said that could also provide an ideal opening for Mr Biden to meet Pacific Island leaders, but stressed that no final decisions had been made and that diplomatic discussions were still continuing.

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