Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday headed to the remote Cook Islands on a rare trip to show renewed US interest in the South Pacific, where China has demonstrated its growing clout.
Clinton was to devote three days to the islands – whose population of 11,000 is about the same size as the US Foreign Service – as she becomes the first top US diplomat to take part in an annual Pacific island summit.
The stop, at the start of a tour through Asia, has been full of logistical headaches as her staff struggled to rustle up enough cars and hotel rooms during one of the biggest events in the archipelago’s history.
Clinton will be joined by Admiral Sam Locklear, head of US Pacific Command, and will announce a series of new aid initiatives focused on the environment and other areas, a senior US official said on condition of anonymity.
The burst of US attention comes as President Barack Obama’s administration puts a focus on the Asia-Pacific, devoting US military and political capital to shaping the future of a region where China is rapidly rising.
While often overlooked strategically, the South Pacific is a gateway into the fast-growing region and the 16 nations in the Pacific Islands Forum offer an ample source of votes at the United Nations and other international fora.
The United States has deep ties with the region due to World War II and its territory of American Samoa but it only recently resumed assistance after shutting its main aid program in the South Pacific in 1994.
US partners Australia, Japan and New Zealand remain major donors to the South Pacific. But China has curried favor by imposing few conditions on its low-interest loans, which according to Australia’s Lowy Institute have totalled more than $600 million in pledges since 2005.
A Washington-based diplomat from the region said Clinton’s visit was considered “very significant” in the South Pacific as a sign of renewed US engagement.