The United States is on track to open a new embassy in Tonga this month, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia said on Tuesday, part of efforts to step up its diplomatic presence in the Pacific region to counter China.
Daniel Kritenbrink told a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the United States was also continuing to engage with Vanuatu and Kiribati about opening proposed new embassies in those countries.
The State Department said in March it plans to open an embassy in Vanuatu. The United States has diplomatic relations with the South Pacific island nation, but these are currently handled by U.S diplomats based in Papua New Guinea.
The United States reopened its embassy in the Solomon Islands this year after a 30-year absence.
Despite the diplomatic push, the Solomon Islands announced in March it had awarded a multi-million-dollar contract to a Chinese state company to upgrade an international port in Honiara.
The United States and regional allies Australia and New Zealand have had concerns that China has ambitions to build a naval base in the region since the Solomon Islands struck a security pact with Beijing last year.
Washington has also been working to renew agreements with the Marshall Islands, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia under which it retains responsibility for the islands’ defense and gains exclusive access to huge swaths of the Pacific.
The Biden administration is seeking US$7.1 billion from Congress over the next two decades for economic assistance to the three countries, funds seen as key to insulating them from growing Chinese influence. The United States is also planning a possible Biden stop in Papua New Guinea on 22 May as part of stepped-up engagement with the Pacific-island region, according to officials familiar with the matter.