By Brad Lendon, CNN
The United States opened an embassy in the Pacific island nation of Tonga on Tuesday, Washington’s latest move to broaden its diplomatic footprint in a region where China has been increasing its influence in recent years.
The announcement came the same day the White House confirmed President Joe Biden will travel to Papua New Guinea during a trip to the Indo-Pacific region later this month, marking the first visit of a sitting US president to the Pacific country.
US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller described the Tonga embassy opening as symbolizing “the renewal of our relationship and underlines the strength of our commitment to our bilateral relations, to the people of Tonga, and to our partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region.”
US Vice President Kamala Harris had announced the Biden administration’s intent to open the Tonga embassy, along with one in Kiribati, last year during the the Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting.
“These actions advance the Biden-Harris administration’s ongoing efforts to strengthen the US-Pacific Islands partnership and to support Pacific regionalism,” the White House said in a statement at the time.
The embassy in the Tongan capital Nuku’alofa is the second Washington has opened in the Pacific islands this year, following the reopening of one in the Solomon Islands in February.
Plans are also underway to open an embassy in Vanuatu, the State Department said in March.
Tonga is a nation of 171 islands in the South Pacific about two-thirds of the way from Hawaii to New Zealand, according to the CIA’s World Fact Book.
Only 45 of those islands are inhabited, and two-thirds of Tonga’s population of 105,000 lives on the main island of Tongatapu.
The country is considered upper income for Pacific island nations, but much of its wealth comes from remittances from overseas diaspora, according to the CIA, which also notes it is seeing “rapidly growing Chinese infrastructure investments.”
That is that kind of influence from Beijing the Biden administration is trying to offset by opening the embassy in Nuku’alofa and in the other Pacific island nations.
Last fall, the White House announced the first-ever US national strategy for the Pacific islands, which includes the increased diplomatic presence, more US Coast Guard and military deployments to the region, programs to fight climate change, and efforts to boost infrastructure as well as education.
Beijing’s growing influence in the South Pacific has unsettled Washington, which sees the islands as a strategic link between the US territory of Guam and Australia and fears Beijing is becoming more aggressive in pursuing its agenda in the region while seeking to gain a military foothold.
Biden’s upcoming trip to Papua New Guinea will take place between stops in Japan and Australia, according to White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who called the partnership between the US and Pacific Island countries “critical.”
Jean-Pierre touted “deep historical and people-to-people ties” between the US and Pacific Island countries.
Analysts say the Pacific island nations have a strategic military value for the US and its ally Australia.
“The islands sit astride a key passageway for US and Australian naval ships and merchant ships,” Timothy Heath, a senior international defense researcher at the RAND Corporation, told CNN last year.
“If China could establish (military) basing rights, it could deploy warships and aircraft temporarily to the islands. (Its) ships and airplanes could threaten US and Australian ships and aircraft that passed by,” he said, adding that even a boosted presence, short of a military one, could help China “collect sensitive intelligence on US and Australian military operations.”
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CNN’s Betsy Klein contributed to this report.