US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to embark on a visit to Tonga, New Zealand, and Australia next week as part of the Biden administration’s efforts to advance its Indo-Pacific strategy and counter China’s growing influence in the region. The State Department announced that Blinken will inaugurate a new US embassy in Tonga’s capital, Nukuʻalofa, on July 26, before heading to Wellington, New Zealand, where he will attend the Women’s World Cup match between the US and the Netherlands.
During his visit to New Zealand, Blinken will meet with officials and later travel to Brisbane, Australia, to hold meetings with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Australian counterparts on July 28-29. This will mark Blinken’s third visit to Asia in the past two months, following trips to China and Indonesia. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and climate envoy John Kerry also recently traveled to China. Meanwhile, Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff is currently in New Zealand for the World Cup, with plans for an additional trip to Samoa in the coming days.
The announcement of Blinken’s trip came a week after the State Department informed Congress of its plans to significantly increase diplomatic staff and facility spending at newly established US embassies in the Pacific islands. This move is a response to China’s growing assertiveness in the region. China currently maintains permanent diplomatic facilities in eight of the 12 Pacific island nations recognized by the US, prompting the need for the US to catch up.
During Blinken’s visit to China, he expressed a desire to “responsibly manage our relationship” and avoid miscalculations between the two countries. He emphasized the need for sustained diplomacy to prevent escalating competition from turning into confrontation or conflict. Blinken’s visit marks the first time a senior US diplomat has visited Beijing since his predecessor Mike Pompeo’s brief stopover in 2018, during which Pompeo advocated for a confrontational approach towards China.
As part of the diplomatic expansion in the Pacific, the State Department plans to hire up to 40 employees over the next five years for each of the newly opened or soon-to-be-opened embassies. These include the embassy in Nuku’alofa and the embassy in Honiara, Solomon Islands, which opened earlier this year. Furthermore, embassies are planned for Port Vila, Vanuatu, and Tarawa, Kiribati. Currently, there are only two temporary US employees in each of the embassies in Honiara and Nuku’alofa. The department expects to spend a minimum of $10 million on start-up, design, and construction costs for each position.
Sources: AP, AFP