US President Joe Biden will host leaders of Pacific Island nations at a Sept 28-29 gathering in Washington, the White House said on Friday, the latest US effort to step up ties with a region increasingly courted by China.

The summit will reflect the United States “broadening and deepening cooperation on key issues such as climate change, pandemic response, economic recovery, maritime security, environmental protection, and advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific”, the White House said in a statement.

An administration official said the White House had invited 12 Pacific Islands countries, including the Solomon Islands, which in April struck a security pact with China, heightening Washington’s concern about Beijing’s growing influence.

The Solomon Islands, which switched its ties to Beijing from Taiwan in 2019, is a focal point in the escalating competition between China and the United States in the strategically vital region.

The Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji were also invited, as well as the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, and Tuvalu, which Taiwan counts among its 14 diplomatic allies.

The White House did not provide details on which countries had confirmed attendance for the summit, which had been signalled as a priority by US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman during a trip to the region last month.

During that trip, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare skipped a planned appearance with Sherman at a World War Two commemoration, and later that month his government did not respond to a US coast guard vessel’s request to refuel.

The United States has stepped up engagement with Pacific Islands countries under Biden, sending several senior official delegations and announcing plans to open embassies in the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, and Tonga.

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