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Transcript: Chargé D’affaires Erika Olson’s Remarks at the Pacific Infrastructure Conference

Good morning, everyone, and thanks for your kind welcome. I, too, would like to begin by acknowledging the Jagera and Turrubul peoples, the traditional custodians of the land on which Brisbane is situated, and I pay my respects to their elders past and present. I also would like to recognize: Australia’s Assistant Minister for Trade, Senator the Honorable Tim Ayers; the infrastructure leaders from across the Pacific Islands who are here today, many of whom I had the opportunity to meet with yesterday; the President of the Australia-Pacific Islands Business Council, Ian Clarke, and his organization for the vision that went into creating this conference. And I’d like to thank you all for the time that you’re dedicating to digging into these issues today.

I’m really honored to be with you here today, as a member of the Pacific family, to talk about the United States’ long-standing commitment to the Blue Pacific, and to share our vision for a stable, secure and prosperous Pacific. Just as importantly, I’ve come here to listen and learn – particularly to learn about what the nations of the Pacific are doing to boost infrastructure, and how the U.S. might work with them in that vital endeavor.

One thing is clear – there’s a large number and range of projects, either in progress or on the drawing board, that can fundamentally improve the lives of those across the region. And that’s evidenced by the conference’s many breakout sessions concentrating on the infrastructure pipelines of individual nations. These sessions showcase the many substantial projects already happening and future opportunities – everything from new housing, to port development, to renewable energy, to transportation infrastructure, to hospitals.

The private sector has the potential to even further energize key development across the Pacific, and I’m glad to see so many representatives of business here. And today’s sessions are really a terrific opportunity for companies to learn more about what’s happening and talk directly to the Pacific ministers that are leading these projects.

This conference is significant in its own right because of the caliber of attendees and the breadth and depth of topics to be explored. It really is the first of its kind, and I’m so excited to see a room full of all of the right people to advance infrastructure in the Pacific. I again congratulate the organizers for their vision and execution, and hope that this will become a regular event.

Today I have a challenging task. As some of you know, I was sitting in the car scribbling madly, as the United States is honored to be hosting today, in Washington, Pacific leaders at the White House for the second Pacific Leaders’ Summit in two years. President Biden spent the day sharing experiences and advancing our cooperation across the region on fundamental topics of economic development – combating the existential impact of climate change, and mutual security. This shows President Biden’s personal dedication to our role as a Pacific nation. This summit is just one element of America’s renewed engagement with the Pacific under the Biden administration.

The United States is a Pacific nation. Pacific Islander Americans comprise 1.4 million of our population, including Native Hawaiians, Samoans, Chamorros and many others. Our nation extends deep into the Pacific – Hawaii, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, as well as our Compacts of Free Association with the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Marshall Islands, and Palau. And the Pacific is personal for so many of us in our families, including Ambassador Kennedy, who was hosted by the Solomon Islands as she revisited her father’s experiences from many years ago. And I myself – my earliest memories are the Pacific as a small child growing up for several years in Guam.

The U.S., and our network of allies and partners, have helped maintain peace and security in the Indo-Pacific for more than 80 years and we work every day to ensure that continues. We champion a free and open Indo-Pacific that excludes no nation. And we welcome contributions to the development of the Blue Pacific – provided they’re made in a manner that respects transparency, the rule of law, sustainable financing, sovereignty, and the autonomy of development-aid recipients.

Some of the longer-standing pieces of infrastructure in the Pacific were built by the U.S. These include ports, roads and hospitals. Airstrips, built in time of strife during World War II, have been used for peaceful purposes for the ensuing eight decades. Just one is Bonriki International Airport in Kiribati, which was built by the United States Naval Construction Battalions, better known as the Navy Seabees, and is now the main gateway into Kiribati. During World War II, about 250,000 Seebees assisted in that war effort. And it’s probably not widely known,

but in 2023 there are still about 800 Seabees working in the Pacific, and they build schools and hospitals, and provide humanitarian assistance. Just some of those recent projects include: a medical clinic in Timor Leste; port construction in Micronesia; a two-room classroom at a primary school in West New Britain, in Papua New Guinea; and renovations to a children’s park, hospital and dental clinic in Honiara.

And the United States wants to play just as an important role in quality infrastructure development into the future. I have colleagues joining me today from USAID, the Foreign Commercial Service, State Department Economic Affairs and the Development Finance Corporation. And I encourage you to seek them out and talk about these opportunities for mutual and joint investment.

Now, today, as I note, the President recommitted the U.S. to working with the Pacific Island nations. He dedicated an additional $200 million, including $40 million for infrastructure projects and $8 million for early-warning systems to give us notice of natural disasters and weather changes in the region. He underscored our deep respect for sovereignty of Pacific Island states by recognizing the Cook Islands and Niue as an independent sovereign nation, and announced our intent to establish diplomatic relations.

So just to talk a little bit about what more we have done together. Since the first Pacific Islands Leaders’ Summit at the White House a year ago, we have opened new U.S. embassies in the Solomon Islands and Tonga, and are working with the government of Kiribati to open there as well. And today we announced intentions to open an embassy in Vanuatu also. We’ve upgraded efforts to combat climate change, we’ve launched a trade and investment dialogue, appointed the first-ever U.S. Envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum, supported the South Pacific Tuna Treaty, laid the groundwork for the return of the Peace Corps, and are very excited to already have Peace Corps volunteers back in Fiji, Samoa, Tonga – and Vanuatu is next. And we’ve worked with local authorities to remove unexploded ordnance.

In the crucial field of health security, the U.S. provided millions of doses of COVID vaccines and is helping partners prepare for health emergencies. We’re working closely with partners to strengthen their health systems to withstand future shocks and drive investment in health security. We’re collaborating with the World Health Organization, the G7, the G20 and other multilateral fora to strengthen preparedness and response. And we’re advancing our resilience efforts through APEC, which the United States is excited to host in 2023, in close cooperation with the Pacific Islands Forum and other groupings. The U.S. has provided more than $1.5 billion to support the Pacific Islands over the past decade. And, in 2022, President Biden announced a further $810 million and then, as I noted, today an additional $200 million.

Against the backdrop of general U.S. support for the Pacific, I’d now like to turn to what we’re doing specifically in the area of sustainable resilient infrastructure. For example, the U.S. is the biggest donor to the World Bank, giving billions to lend out for development and reconstruction. And at the recent G20 meeting in New Delhi, President Biden announced that America will seek to provide an additional $25 billion to the World Bank. He also called on world leaders to take similar steps to increase that funding to not only the World Bank but other multilateral development banks as well. The United States is one of the Asian Development Bank’s largest funders, and in 2022 alone we provided more than $600 million for infrastructure projects across the Indo-Pacific. And in response to the countries of the Pacific asking for more sustained and in-person coordination, together with our new embassies, on August 14 Administrator Samantha Power announced a USAID office in Suva that has responsibility for the agency’s programs in nine countries across the region. And just today, President Biden announced that we will double our staff there. And that means that there are more Americans on the ground in the Pacific, people who can talk directly with local decision makers and gain intimate knowledge of what’s needed. The U.S. Trade Development Agency is mobilizing more than $400 million in financing for climate-smart infrastructure projects that will advance the region’s net-zero goals. And we’ve developed a memorandum of commercial cooperation to facilitate private sector engagement among Pacific Island countries. The United States is also a long-standing sponsor of the Pacific Regional Infrastructure Facility, an organization that has offered advice and support to Pacific Island nations to develop high-quality infrastructure over the past 20 years.

In addition to capacity-building, America is helping on specific regionwide and local projects. USAID is supporting broadband and connectivity across the region. In concert with Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, we’re providing humanitarian assistance and disaster-relief warehousing, cybersecurity support, and a vessel to support fisheries and ocean science. With Australia and Japan, we’re working with Micronesia, Kiribati and Nauru on the East Micronesia Cable Project. And we’re providing grants to Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands to build schools and hospitals. We’re collaborating with Palau to modernize its national mobile-phone network. And as announced last month by Administrator Power in Port Moresby, USAID is investing an extra $1.2 million to set up a solar mini grid in Papua New Guinea’s Central Province.

This long list of how we’re cooperating in the region just shows the continuation of our decades-long commitment to partnering with the countries of the Pacific Islands to address and help spur inclusive growth, infrastructure development, education, health and health security, and resilient and sustainable food systems. And as the Pacific works to mitigate the existential threat of climate change, President Biden announced today, in addition to the $8 million for early warning, that the United States believes that rising sea levels should not impact a country’s territorial claims, and that is something that we will continue to work on, with the states and nations of the of the Pacific Islands.

So, in conclusion, the U.S., in concert with Australia and others, is an active and enduring partner in the Pacific and a member of the Pacific family. Already, the significant outcomes from the Leaders’ Summit in Washington, which will continue over the next 24 hours, shows our dedication to taking our cooperation to yet a higher level. In the sessions coming up this morning, we will have other U.S. government officials joining to talk more in detail about some of these bilateral infrastructure opportunities, and the way in which government services can connect businesses in the region. We also commend Australia for their commitment to the region, and we’re looking forward to next month’s visit by Prime Minister Albanese to Washington, in which we expect the Pacific will have a large dimension of the Pacific and relations in the Pacific.

But my key messages here to you today is that the principles of our commitment are unchanged from almost a century ago. The U.S. is in the region for the long haul. And rather than applying quick fixes, we support infrastructure projects that are of the highest quality, and that address both short- and long-term needs. The United States believes in assessing projects from a best-value perspective. And we also believe in pursuing transparent sustainable business practices to ensure that countries meet their development needs and maintain independence in their decision making when building towards a sustainable future. American businesses are keen to invest in, and do business with, countries that operate transparently, uphold the rule of law and protect intellectual property.

And as my colleague noted earlier, and as we discussed in meetings yesterday, another important element is the transfer of knowledge, as these infrastructure projects come to fruition, to ensure that the communities of the Pacific Islands nations have the opportunity to advance their industry, and build sustainable industry and infrastructure skills.

Additionally, as I noted earlier, as a Pacific Island nation ourselves, cultural and people-to-people ties are an essential part of our relations. And as our colleague

from Tonga raised with me yesterday, the need for more sister-city relationships between the United States and the Pacific Islands. President Biden also announced today the intent to do that, to add seven additional sister-city relationships over the next several years. So we look forward to working together with you to do that.

Thank you so much for having me here today. I apologize that so many of these, of these new investments, are breaking. I think we’ll continue to have new things to share with you and to dig into over the next several days. I wish you all the best of luck as this conference continues, and hope that we’ll see you all here again in the very near future to continue these discussions. Thank you so much.