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White House hosts summit with leaders of Pacific Island nations

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Biden is welcoming leaders from the Pacific Islands. A summit today and tomorrow in Washington is a sign of the administration's concern about the growing influence of China. NPR's Franco Ordoñez reports.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: The White House says the summit is a chance to deepen cooperation on key issues like climate, with leaders from a dozen of the islands, including Fiji, Micronesia and Samoa. But it also comes in the wake of inroads China has made in the region, including a security pact that Beijing reached with the Solomon Islands.

PATRICIA O’BRIEN: The United States has had a real wake-up call in terms of how extensive China's influence is and how ominous it is.

ORDOÑEZ: That's Patricia O'Brien from the Asia Studies Program at Georgetown University. She says that Beijing built relationships with these islands over the last 16 years while the U.S. was distracted by wars in the Middle East and other challenges.

O’BRIEN: It focused its attentions and its energies away from the Pacific, and it essentially subcontracted out a huge part of its outreach in the Pacific to other countries.

ORDOÑEZ: The prime minister of the Solomon Islands says it's not about picking sides. Here is Manasseh Sogavare at the United Nations General Assembly last week.

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PRIME MINISTER MANASSEH SOGAVARE: Solomon Islands has no enemies, only friends. Our struggle is to develop our country. We've stretched out our hand of friendship and seek genuine and honest cooperation.

ORDOÑEZ: Kurt Campbell is Biden's top adviser for the region. He admits that the U.S. didn't give the region the attention it should have.

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KURT CAMPBELL: The United States needs to step up its game across the Indo-Pacific.

ORDOÑEZ: Speaking at a think tank event last week, Campbell said the U.S. is ready to listen and invest. He said the U.S. used to have good aid and Peace Corps programs and strong Coast Guard deployments.

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CAMPBELL: Some of those, frankly, over time atrophied. And now we're in the process of rebuilding all of those and more.

ORDOÑEZ: O'Brien urged the United States to follow through on those promises.

O’BRIEN: This isn't transactional. This isn't just about solving a geopolitical headache for the United States.

ORDOÑEZ: Because at this point, she says, it's literally about saving the islands from rising sea levels.

Franco Ordoñez, NPR News, the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "SHADOWS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.