In a virtual address at the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji, Vice President Kamala Harris announced that the U.S. would open two new embassies in the Pacific region — one in the Polynesian monarchy Tonga and one in the small Micronesian island of Kiribati.
Increasing a diplomatic presence in Tonga and Kiribati is part of a wider strategic push by the Biden administration to counterbalance growing Chinese influence in the Pacific region. In 2019, Kiribati and the neighboring Solomon Islands transferred their diplomatic allegiance to the People’s Republic of China from self-ruling Taiwan (which China claims as its territory).
The Biden administration has since rolled out several initiatives to increase diplomatic and security resources in the Pacific and push back against China’s political and military presence. Earlier this year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the U.S. was also on track to reopen its embassy in the Solomon Islands for the first time since 1993.
In her Pacific Islands Forum address, Harris acknowledged the need for a closer partnership with leaders in the region and a regular exchange between the U.S. and Pacific government officials at all levels. “We recognize that in recent years, the Pacific Islands may not have received the diplomatic attention and support that you deserve,” Harris said in a statement. “So today I am here to tell you directly: We are going to change that.”
Aside from the prospect of two new embassies in the region, U.S. diplomatic presence in the Pacific has been scarce in recent decades. The U.S. Embassy Suva in Fiji has served as the diplomatic epicenter for multiple countries (Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Tonga, and Tuvalu) since 1971. Despite a lack of embassy locations, the desire to strengthen diplomatic relations and economic ties between the U.S. and Pacific countries has grown in recent years. The Department of State has even maintained a “Virtual Consulate of Tonga” on its Suva Embassy website, which strives to connect U.S. citizens and organizations to local business and cultural opportunities in Tonga.
“Virtual Presence Posts” like Tonga’s are a common way for the U.S. government to establish pseudo-diplomatic missions in countries or territories where it has no physical posts. Although these sites can provide helpful information for U.S. expats and prospective visa applicants, they are largely symbolic in nature. Virtual presence posts do not act as remote visa services or carry out the duties of physical embassies or consulates.
There are several reasons why the U.S. may not have a physical diplomatic post in a certain country, most notably that it does not share diplomatic relationships with a country (for example, Iran) or officially recognize a country’s sovereignty (in the case of Palestine). Geographical and safety concerns are also a consideration when establishing a physical diplomatic presence in a specific region.
A lack of an official U.S. Embassy or consulate can negatively impact prospective visa applicants of such countries. Citizens of countries that do not have a U.S. Embassy or consulate can generally still apply for specific types of nonimmigrant and immigrant visas, but their applications have to be processed at embassies or consulates in neighboring countries.
Having a visa application processed through a third-party embassy typically means that applicants have to travel to neighboring countries for visa appointments and interviews. Applicants must therefore take into consideration travel and accommodation costs as they prepare for their U.S. visa appointments. The country where the embassy or consulate is located may even have its own travel restrictions and temporary visa requirements, adding an additional barrier to the process. Overall, a physical embassy or consulate location not only strengthens diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the country in question, but can ease the visa application process for prospective immigrants and travelers.