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US says to open Vanuatu embassy 'imminently', warns of China deals

By David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States will open an embassy in Vanuatu "imminently" and is working to get the approval of the parliament in Kiribati for a mission, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia said on Thursday, while reiterating warnings to Pacific Island countries of the dangers of agreements with China.

Washington has been working to boost its diplomatic presence in the Pacific to counter growing competition for influence there from China, its main strategic rival.

Daniel Kritenbrink, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the U.S. had already opened two of the four new embassies it had announced plans for in the region.

"We've successfully done so in the Solomon Islands and in Tonga. We will be open imminently in Vanuatu. And ... we're working diligently to follow up on Kiribati, and we'll need parliamentary approval for that," he said.

Kritenbrink's comments came after Washington last month cautioned Pacific Island nations against assistance from Chinese security forces following a Reuters report that Chinese police were working in Kiribati, a remote atoll nation near Hawaii.

Earlier in the hearing, the ranking member of the Senate committee, Republican James Risch, said Washington had "been too slow to get our diplomats permanently on the ground to push back against Chinese influence" in the Pacific.

"We're moving at the speed of bureaucracy and not the speed of relevance," he said.

Chinese police have deployed in the Solomon Islands since 2022 after a secret security pact criticized by the United States and Australia as undermining regional stability, and concerns have been raised over workers in military uniforms in Vanuatu after Chinese company began logging there.

POLICING AGREEMENTS

Kritenbrink called China's policing agreements in the Pacific "opaque and deeply concerning" and said countries there should be "careful and cleared eyed" about economic agreements with Beijing.

"China often make many promises that remain unfulfilled, and that can have negative consequences," he said.

Papua New Guinea, the biggest Pacific Island nation, said last month it would not accept a Chinese offer of police assistance and surveillance technology, after news it was negotiating a policing deal with China prompted U.S. and Australian criticism.

The top Defense Department official for the Indo-Pacific, Ely Ratner, told the hearing the Pacific was a "huge priority" and the Pentagon was looking at infrastructure projects it could do in PNG after concluding a Defense Cooperation Agreement last year.

"We have already had one ... site survey team down and another one on the way," he said.

Kritenbrink said the U.S. was partnering with Australia to finance maritime infrastructure in Kiribati, including the refurbishing of wharfs, and highlighted U.S. Coast Guard work to combat illegal fishing in the region.

He said the U.S. ambassador to Kiribati, Marie Damour, who is resident in Fiji, was currently visiting the country "to hear the needs of our friends in Kiribati and to determine the best way forward".

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; additional reporting by Michael Martina, Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; Editing by Don Durfee and Alex Richardson)