President Joe Biden found himself momentarily adrift while unveiling a $40 billion infrastructure investment plan for Pacific islands during a White House summit for Pacific island nations. He introduced the Pacific Islands Initiative but stumbled over its acronym, leading to a humorous moment as he quipped about acronyms.
Biden, who has spoken about overcoming a speech impediment in his youth, has been garnering increasing attention for his verbal gaffes, which have raised concerns about his age. Notably, he recently mixed up the names of caucuses at an event and encountered the Brazilian flag at a UN event.
At the same summit, Biden made a perplexing comment, claiming that both he and Mark Brown, the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, were from Baltimore, even though neither has any evident connection to the city. He mentioned boosting ties between the two nations while announcing diplomatic relations.
The President then proceeded to discuss some of the infrastructure investments that would be made with congressional support. These included digital connectivity, global infrastructure investments, micro-finance, sustainable fisheries, and efforts to combat climate change and rising sea levels.
Biden expressed his commitment to addressing the concerns of the Pacific island nations, particularly those related to climate change and their membership in the United Nations. Smaller nations from the region hold significant influence at the UN.
The President also shared a personal story about his uncle’s World War II missions in the Pacific and a condolence letter from General Douglas MacArthur. He regretfully mentioned having to cancel a planned trip to Papua New Guinea due to debt limit negotiations earlier in the year.
Regarding the infrastructure initiative, it is officially known as the Pacific Island Strategic Infrastructure Initiative, as per the U.S. Trade and Development Agency’s proposal call.
This summit with Pacific island leaders is part of a broader U.S. effort to counter China’s growing influence in the region, which Washington traditionally considers its sphere of influence. Biden announced U.S. diplomatic recognition of the Cook Islands and Niue and pledged additional funds for regional infrastructure, including improved internet connectivity through undersea cables. The U.S. also plans to honor regional leaders at an NFL game.
However, the Solomon Islands Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare, who has strengthened ties with China, decided not to attend the summit, disappointing the U.S. Washington has yet to make progress on significant infrastructure funding and expanded aid to the Solomons.
While the U.S. has increased its presence in the Pacific region since the previous year’s summit, Congress has not approved the funds promised. Pacific island nations appreciate U.S. re-engagement but want to avoid escalating militarization due to geopolitical rivalries.
Vanuatu Prime Minister Sato Kilman also won’t attend, with China as the nation’s largest external creditor. The U.S. is negotiating to open an embassy in Vanuatu but has not substantially increased its engagement. Fiji welcomes the stronger U.S. presence, while Kiribati plans to upgrade a World War Two airstrip with Chinese assistance. Washington has renewed agreements with Palau and Micronesia but has yet to do so with the Marshall Islands.
A Biden administration official expressed confidence in reaching a deal with the Marshall Islands.