MODERATOR:  Greetings from the U.S. Department of State’s Asia Pacific Media Hub.  I would like to welcome journalists to today’s on-the-record briefing with Director of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, USTDA, Enoh T. Ebong.  Director Ebong will discuss her travel to Fiji February 11th to 14th and USTDA’s work to facilitate high-quality, sustainable infrastructure in the Pacific Islands.  While in Fiji, Director Ebong will open USTDA’s first in-person workshop in the Pacific Islands with participants from eight Pacific Island countries, focused on how to make airports more resilient to natural disasters and rising sea levels.  Director Ebong’s trip coincides with the two-year anniversary of the Biden-Harris administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy for a free and open, connected, prosperous, secure, and resilient region.  USTDA has doubled its programming in the region to bring about this vision, including surging its activity in the Pacific Islands since being designated as the lead of the Pacific Islands Infrastructure Initiative in September 2022.

And with that, let’s get started.  Director Ebong, I’ll turn it over to you for your opening remarks.

MS EBONG:  Thank you very much, Catherine, and good afternoon, everyone.  Thank you for being here.  I’m delighted to be with you on the two-year anniversary of the launch of the U.S. Government’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, and to support our government’s vision for a region that is free, open, connected, prosperous, resilient, and secure.

President Biden has elevated broader and deeper engagement with the Pacific Islands as a priority, and at USTDA we are taking real action in support of this policy.  Our mission is to partner with emerging economies around the world to support the development of high-quality, sustainable infrastructure, and at the same time, bring U.S. private sector innovation to the infrastructure projects that we support.

One of the challenges of developing infrastructure is the high cost associated with preparing the detailed technical and financial analyses that banks require before they can lend.  USTDA addresses this issue by providing grant-based funding for feasibility studies, technical assistance, and pilot projects – the activities that are necessary to ensure projects are well-designed and can attract the necessary financing.

Our agency’s capabilities and our commitment to action is why President Biden tasked USTDA to lead our government’s Pacific Island Infrastructure Initiative.  Our Pacific Islands portfolio has now grown to include clean and renewable energy projects, trusted digital infrastructure, and a new undersea fiber optic cable system to provide new or expanded internet connectivity to people in 12 Pacific Island countries.  We have also funded numerous partnership-building activities, including the workshop that I will open tomorrow on making airport infrastructure more resilient to natural disasters and the impacts of climate change.  This is USTDA’s first in-person workshop in the Pacific Islands.

As I close my remarks, I would like to make two announcements.  First, I am delighted to announce that USTDA will cohost the sixth Indo-Pacific Business Forum, or IPBF, with the Government of the Philippines on May 21st in Manila.  IPBF is the premier public-private U.S. Government event to promote trade, investment, and economic cooperation between the United States and its partners throughout the Indo-Pacific region.  Second, I am pleased to announce that USTDA will fund our second regional workshop for the Pacific Islands, this time on best practices for the procurement of high-quality infrastructure.  It will take place here in Fiji in the coming year.

At USTDA, our goal is to support the development paths that our partners have chosen for their countries, and to work together in the spirit of partnership and respect to create a more prosperous future for all of us.

Thank you and I welcome your questions.

MODERATOR:  Thank you so much, Director Ebong.  We will now turn to the question-and-answer portion of today’s briefing.

Our first question came in in advance from Nhu Nguyen from OEC in Da Nang, Vietnam, who asks:  “In the event that sea levels rise, how many airports in the Pacific Islands will require higher runways and terminals?  Could you please let us know how much these airport renovation projects are expected to cost?  Will the renovated airports be utilized exclusively for civil purposes or should they also serve as a means of extended military support given the current state of geopolitics, which is escalating, and China’s desire to exert more influence in the Pacific Islands?”  That was a long one – over to the Director.

MS EBONG:  Thank you very much for the question.  In the first instance, on how many airports in the rise, I don’t actually know the answer to that question, and that is because actually as we work on projects, these are the kinds of questions that we’re trying to assess and bring technical expertise in to understanding, and then once you assess it you work on the project from there.  So I’m afraid I can’t give you an answer to that, but know that what you ask is very much in the wheelhouse of assessments and technical work that USTDA does.

On the question of the use of airports, our work can only be used and mandated for civilian purposes.  That is within the law that we follow as a civilian government agency.  And so our – the end results of our projects are for civilian purposes.

MODERATOR:  All right.  Our next question comes to us from Gorethy Kenneth, who is with the South Pacific Post Limited in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, who asks:  “Can you provide specific examples of ongoing or planned infrastructure projects in Papua New Guinea that USTDA is involved in, and how they align with the objective of creating a more resilient region?”

MS EBONG:  Yes, thank you for that question.  We have a current project in Papua New Guinea; it’s a feasibility study and it’s a grant that was made to Papua New Guinea’s state-owned power utility to use and expand the use of smart grid technologies across the country.  The goal there is to try and strengthen the resilience of Papua New Guinea’s power grid and to improve electricity access to the citizens of Papua New Guinea.

I would also add that Papua New Guinea is a participant in many of our regional activities.  The one that comes to mind is a reverse trade mission.  I mentioned partnership activities.  One of the partnership activities that we do is bring delegations to the United States to see the ways in which we are attempting to attract and to work through some of these challenges.  And so we did a port security and resilience reverse trade mission from, I think it was about six countries represented, and Papua New Guinea was one of those.

So we’re very much working across the region trying to develop these relationships, and Papua New Guinea is certainly amongst our partner countries.

MODERATOR:  All right.  Mr. Kenneth had another question to follow up, again from the Post Courier in Papua New Guinea.  “Given Papua New Guinea’s vulnerability to natural disasters and rising sea levels, what strategies or technologies is USTDA implementing to ensure the long-term sustainability and resilience of infrastructure projects in the country?”

MS EBONG:  Thank you for the question.  I think these are really critical.  And what we seek to do is make sure that we’re aware of the newest technologies and the advances made to try and address these issues.  The work has to come with clear assessments first of the environment at hand, and really taking the time to do deep climate resilience analyses so that we understand the roots and the causes, and then bring our technologies to address them.

So what I would say is just as we are tomorrow looking at how to make sure that airports and aviation officials can respond to natural disasters such as typhoons and volcanoes, and bringing experts from the Federal Aviation Administration to do so in discussion with representatives from your island nations, to really make sure that we understand and then can bring the expertise to address the issues.

So it’s not a one size fits all, necessarily, but a really very focused way of matching what we can bring in innovation and solutions and technologies to the problems that persist, particularly with rising sea levels.

MODERATOR:  All right.  We have a question from Stephen Wright, who joins us from Radio Free Asia based in Sydney, Australia.  Stephen asks:  “Countries such as Tuvalu and Marshall Islands are seeking substantial funds for land reclamation projects as a response to projected sea-level rise.  What mechanisms can fund these proposals, which amount to billions and billions of dollars?”

MS EBONG:  Thank you for that question.  I think, again, this is an issue of – and the point of the cost of these things I think is very critical here.  The way we take our approach to this is making sure that we can connect and scope – it’s a sort of a holistic approach to all of this, not only careful project preparation – so looking at how and what kinds of mechanisms technologically-wise can be used here – but also to look at the other end of things: how can these projects be financed?  Who are the partners that can bring resources both in the public and the multilateral, but also in the private?  Trying to seek new sources of financing.

I’ll give you an example.  During COP28 in Dubai, we entered into an agreement with the Investor Leadership Network.  This is a network of pension funds, of asset managers – not very front-forward in investing in emerging economies, but they’re interested in doing so, particularly in the context of the climate challenge.  So we joined with them.  They have trillions of dollars under management.  They want to make a difference.  And so part of our approach is to bring not only the technical acumen, but the financial wherewithal, and that means really hunting down and being quite front-forward in finding alternate, new financing that we can hopefully bring to bear to help to address some of these really high costs.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Director Ebong.  Director, maybe if you could tell us a little bit more in the meantime about anything you can tell us about IB – the Indo-Pacific Business Forum coming up in the Philippines.  Will the Pacific Islands countries be represented?  And how do you work with other regional organizations?  Will we see connections with APEC and other structures?  And I’m curious what you see as the focus of this year’s forum.

MS EBONG:  Absolutely.  Yes, we will and we are going to be quite aggressive at looking to make sure that our Pacific Island partners are represented at the forum.  We work – this is – I would call it a great exercise in partnership and collaboration.  We work closely with our partners in the region.  I mentioned that we are cohosting it with the Government of the Philippines, but we also work closely with our colleagues in Australia, at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and also with our colleagues in Japan as well.  In fact, the last IPBF was hosted in Tokyo.

So we are working closely with our partners in the region, both private and public sector, and we are also focused on making sure that we cover those areas of focus that I think are very much on people’s minds.  So talking about the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework; supply chains; climate, of course, will be a huge focus; digital infrastructure is key in the region; and transportation as well.

And we will – you talked about cooperating with partners in the region.  We work with the ASEAN region countries, and in the United States, the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council is an important partner here, our Chamber of Commerce, and then our partners in government.  Cannot forget our colleagues at the State Department who are so critical to the success.

And so we really hope to take a comprehensive view and engender good discussion.  I always say discussion is important, but we always look for results and actions coming out of these.  I know for USTDA, from many of our partnership-building activities come ideas for our projects, ideas for collaborations.  And so we really look to this conference not only to get the private and the public sectors together from the region – U.S. companies will be there, there will be one-on-one matchmaking for companies.  So we want to engender these partnerships, these relationships that can lead to projects and activity that can address the challenge that we all face in the climate arena, but in others as well.  And it really does – it’s a fantastic event because it’s a crucible of being able to back through ideas and hopefully come to some solutions as well.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Maybe I’ll also bring us back to the Pacific Islands region and ask a little bit more about how USTDA shapes its priorities in the region and how do you work with our partners in the region in the development phase of different projects.  I see you’ve done a lot of work with – in addition to the airports workshop that we’ve talked about – electrification, digital infrastructure, port infrastructure.  It seems like a great breadth of activity, and I’m wondering how your projects get developed and how you work with the governments in the region.

MS EBONG:  Thank you so much.  It’s a really important question because we take our lead from our partners – our partners in our emerging economies and our partners in the private sector at home.  Our partners want to and are very interested in engaging in this region.  After we were tasked with leading the Pacific Island Infrastructure Initiative in the fall of ’22, the first thing we did was come out here with our colleagues in the Department of Transportation and others in the U.S. Government and face to face with the partners in the various economies here and countries, because we take the lead from them.  Their priorities are our priorities, and we bring what our private sector can do in – within that context.

So I would say our approach is partnership-driven both in terms of the governments that we deal with and also the private sector as well.  We work with both public and private sectors as project sponsors in the countries that we work in.  And then it also is driven by what our technologies, innovations, solutions can do to help.  So as long as we have those ingredients, we feel well prepared to then bring assistance that will have effect.

It was really interesting that coming out here and doing business development in the beginning of ’23 resulted in us then issuing a call for proposals amongst U.S. companies and others which are partners in the Pacific Islands for work that they thought needed to be done for concepts, and we received over 80 proposals, which is a lot for the fact that we hadn’t done that before in the region.  So it really tells you that the interest is extremely high.  And so those are key ingredients, and then we work through as we see the need, as our partners raise issues; we then test whether it is something that we can fund.  We have experts that will come and look at the projects, look at the concepts, and then we’ll move forward in that fashion if it is something that fits the impact, the possibility of financing.  These are the kinds of things we’ll look at as well.

So those are some of the elements of our work.  I would be remiss if I did not mention the import of our U.S. embassy on the ground in really helping us to work through some of the proposals and connect us with the partners on the ground here.  It really is a very important U.S. Government whole-of-government approach, and we couldn’t do our work without the work and the contribution and the time and the efforts of our posts.  And the U.S. embassy here I know does so much work in covering many of the countries here, but they have been critical in allowing us to stand up this portfolio in a relatively short period of time.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes to us from Giff Johnson of the Marshall Islands Journal based in Majuro, in the Marshall Islands.  Giff asks:  “I assume that USTDA has minimum project funding requirements that don’t always match the smaller needs of Pacific Islands.  In this regard, does USTDA have any projects in the smaller Pacific Islands such as the FAS, Kiribati, and Tuvalu?”

MS EBONG:  In fact, we do.  Yes.  I would point to a couple of things that we are doing.  I’m really excited about this particular project.  This is a project that we’re doing on the Central Pacific Cable system.  We’re looking at – and it’s a feasibility study and looking at how to most effectively develop almost 16,000 kilometers of subsea cable with a branch line, trunk line, between Guam and American Samoa that will provide new or expanded high-speed connectivity to approximately 400,000 people in 12 Pacific countries.  Tellingly, it’s the first time there’ll be a landing in Tuvalu, so really pleased about that.  And then it will impact countries that include Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, of course Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and Wallis and Futuna.  So we seek to make sure that we can patch the islands in a comprehensive way, and that’s an example of how we can do that.

And I mentioned – and I’ll just reiterate again – the work that we try to do regionally, we try to do so in a way that will impact as many of the nation islands as possible.

MODERATOR:  Thank you so much, Director Ebong.  All right.  Well, we are coming near the end of our time today, so if you have any last words, we’ll turn it back over to you.

MS EBONG:  Well, thank you so much for this opportunity.  Seeing as tomorrow is but a few hours away, I did want to mention also, sort of connected to that last question, that we will have representatives from the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu expected at our workshop tomorrow.  So again, another example of trying to make sure that we are as comprehensive as possible in our approach.

I just want to say in closing thank you very much for attending, and I hope that it was informative, and we look forward to more years of work here in this critically important part of the world – not just for the people who live here, but for all of us.  Thank you and have a good day.

MODERATOR:  Thank you so much.  This brings us to the end of our time for today.  Thank you for your questions, and thank you so much to Director Ebong for joining us.  We will provide a transcript of this briefing to participating journalists as soon as it is available, and we’d also love to hear your feedback.  You can contact us at any time at  Thanks again for your participation, and we hope you can join us for another briefing soon.  Take care.

U.S. Department of State

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