WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States plans to open an embassy in the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, the State Department said on Friday, in Washington’s latest move to boost its diplomatic presence in the Pacific to counter China’s growing influence.
“Consistent with the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, a permanent diplomatic presence in Vanuatu would allow the U.S. Government to deepen relationships with Ni-Vanuatu officials and society,” the department said in a statement.
“Establishing U.S. Embassy Port Vila would facilitate areas of potential bilateral cooperation and development assistance, including efforts to tackle the climate crisis,” it said.
The United States has diplomatic relations with Vanuatu, which has a population of 319,000 spread across 80 islands, but is currently represented by diplomats based in New Guinea.
The United States States reopened its embassy in the Solomon Islands this year after a 30-year absence and the latest State Department announcement follows a visit this month to the region, including Vanuatu, by U.S. Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell.
Other U.S. embassies are planned in the Pacific island nations of Kiribati and Tonga.
Despite the diplomatic push, the Solomon Islands announced this month it had awarded a multi-million-dollar contract to a Chinese state company to upgrade an international port in Honiara.
The United States and its regional allies have held 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 (FSM) under which it retains responsibility for the islands’ defense and gains exclusive access to huge swaths of the Pacific.
The Biden administration is seeking more than $7 billion over the next two decades for economic assistance to the three countries, the State Department said last week, funds seen as key to insulating them from growing Chinese influence.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Eric Beech; editing by Kanishka Singh and Sandra Maler)