A senior U.S. official said on Tuesday that the need to step up engagement with Pacific island nations, including through in-person exchanges with their leaders, was discussed by the US president Joe Biden and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Biden and Ardern met in the White House amid a concerted push by China to increase its influence in the Pacific island region, which has raised concerns in both New Zealand and the United States, and among other U.S. allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific.
Greeting Ardern in the Oval Office, Biden said Washington had no desire to dictate to the region but to partner with them. He said that there was more work to do in the Pacific islands.
After the meeting, Ardern told reporters that both countries were strongly aligned in furthering the Pacific values and the focus that Pacific island leaders have determined for themselves. The senior U.S. official said on condition of anonymity that the two sides discussed shared concerns about the challenges faced by Pacific island nations and the need to help them deal with issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.
He said that there was a lot of discussion about the importance of in-person engagement with Pacific island leaders and the importance of the United States working closely with New Zealand and other partners in the Pacific, as we continue to step up our efforts to engage more effectively in the Pacific.
Ardern was the first New Zealand leader to visit the White House since Sir John Key met President Barack Obama in 2014.
The Foreign Minister of China, Wang Yi, was in Tonga on Tuesday as part of a tour through the Pacific Islands.
He signed agreements in Tonga for fishing and police equipment, but Pacific island nations were unable to reach consensus on a sweeping regional trade and security pact that China has proposed, as a result of a meeting with Wang a day earlier in the day.
New Zealand joined Biden's Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity IPEF, a economic bloc that excludes China and was designed to counter that country, during Biden's first trip to Asia as president last week.
Ardern said the pact presents a significant opportunity to build economic resilience in our region. New Zealand and several other countries in the region think it does not go far enough, and would like to see the United States rejoin a trade pact his predecessor, Donald Trump, in 2017. Biden has been reticent to do so because of domestic fears that such deals could cost jobs.
Biden and Ardern also discussed their response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine as well as gun control following several mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, including one last week at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, which left 21 children and teachers dead.
After the massacre of Christchurch in 2019, where a gunman killed 51 Muslims, Ardern delivered a ban on semiautomatic firearms and other gun curbs, a stark contrast to the United States, where lawmakers and activists have struggled to address gun violence. Ardern offered her condolences on the recent shootings.