Clinton to Cook Islands: US cares (more than China)

Secretary of State Clinton is visiting the Cook Islands as the South Pacific, long a strategic backwater, attracts new attention amid Washington-Beijing competition for regional influence.

Jim Watson/Reuters
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (2nd r.) participates in an arrival ceremony at Rarotonga International Airport in Rarotonga, Thursday, August 30.

When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in the Cook Islands today, her entourage and an aircraft carrier in tow, the message for the tiny South Pacific territory and its fellow island nations should be clear: America cares.

Or more precisely, “America cares more than China.”

Ms. Clinton is dropping in on little-known Rarotonga, the Cook Islands’ capital, to meet leaders of 15 countries in the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) after their annual summit.

Never before has such a high-ranking US diplomat attended such a meeting; even against the background of China’s growing ties in the South Pacific and Washington’s strategic “pivot to Asia,” the visit has taken some regional observers by surprise. 

“It is serious overkill to send the world’s most senior diplomat to the after-party of an obscure regional meeting,” says Fergus Hanson, an expert on the South Pacific at the Lowy Institute, a think tank in Sydney, Australia. “It’s not exactly a sign of confidence.”

But after nearly two decades of ignoring Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia – Washington closed its regional aid office and even its Peace Corps program in the 1990s – other analysts think it is time to make amends.

“At this point, it is prudent and appropriate to make contact with the sub-region,” argues Denny Roy, an analyst at the East-West Center in Honolulu. “The island states might have felt worthless in US eyes, but this visit will buy Washington a lot of goodwill.”

What about China? 

China, meanwhile, has sent the same level delegation as it has for several years, led by Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai. “They’ve been consistent,” says Samuela Savou, the Pacific Islands Trade Commissioner in Beijing, approvingly.

Beijing’s interest in the South Pacific was long driven by fierce competition with Taiwan for diplomatic recognition. An informal truce in the “checkbook war,” in which each side sought to outbid the other for support from tiny nations such as Kiribati and Nauru, ended the rivalry in 2007. 

That did not lead to a Chinese withdrawal from the region, however. Over the past five years, since Premier Wen Jiabao attended a summit with the island nations recognizing mainland China, Beijing has given about $600 million to the region in soft loans and grants, according to an estimate by the Lowy Institute.

If Clinton looks out of her SUV window on Rarotonga, she might see a new courthouse and police station, built by the Chinese. China also helped construct the island’s airport.

But China’s aid amounts to less than 1/10th of what the region’s largest donor, Australia, provides, and is also 1/5th of New Zealand’s contribution.

Which superpower has the advantage?

The South Pacific, long a strategic backwater far from military or commercial sea lanes, is attracting new attention as Washington and Beijing vie for influence in the Asia-Pacific region, but there is no doubt as to which superpower has the advantage.

The 14 island nations in the PIF are solidly pro-Western. Six of them do not even recognize the People’s Republic of China, maintaining diplomatic relations with Taiwan instead. And of the rest, three let the US or New Zealand run their foreign and defense policy and two others are heavily dependent on Australia.

Only Fiji, cold-shouldered by Western powers since a military coup in 2006, has sought to build an alternative alliance with China, and Beijing has recently shown itself uncomfortable with the prospect.

“If we were to compete seriously for political influence in the South Pacific, the first casualty would be our relations with Australia and New Zealand, and we do not want that,” says Han Feng, a Pacific affairs analyst at the China Academy for Social Sciences, a government-linked think tank in Beijing.

 Australia is China’s primary source of iron ore, critical to its steel industry and thus to its future economic development.

‘Not just about the South Pacific’

China’s increased presence in the South Pacific, with investments in a nickel mine in Papua New Guinea, a bauxite mine in Fiji, and fisheries licenses around the region, merely reflects the Asian giant’s moves around the world, argues Professor Han. “This is not just about the South Pacific,” he says. “China is expanding its attention to every corner of the globe.”

 As in other parts of the world, China’s involvement in the Pacific island nations has not been trouble-free for Western powers. Beijing’s aid comes without strings, Han points out. “There are no political conditions and we do not monitor how our aid is used,” he says. That undermines Australian and New Zealand efforts to improve governance in corruption-prone countries by tying aid to performance criteria.

A joint New Zealand-Chinese project to improve water supplies in the Cook Islands, due to be announced Friday, could mark a turning point on this front. “We are open to explore further ways of expanding such cooperation,” Mr. Cui told the official Chinese news agency Xinhua.

Beijing has shown little sign of concern at Clinton’s high-profile visit to Rarotonga. Xinhua published a commentary describing her tour as a bid “to contain China’s increasing influence” and “to defend [US] dominance and hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region,” which the commentator described as “unwise,” but no official has remarked on the secretary of State’s plans.

“The US is concerned by China’s rising influence in the South Pacific so it is paying more attention,” comments Zhang Guihong, a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai. “That’s America’s concern, not ours. It doesn’t worry us.” 

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