Clinton's Pacific Trip 'Sends Message'

Manila Bulletin, August 26, 2012 | Go to article overview

Clinton's Pacific Trip 'Sends Message'


AVARUA, Cook Islands, (AFP) - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is set to make a rare foray to the South Pacific this week, in a move analysts say is aimed at curbing China's growing influence among the region's small island nations.

While Clinton's previous trips to the area have focused on Canberra and Wellington, this time she is expected to visit the Cook Islands, a nation of just 11,000 people whose 15 islands cover an area barely larger than Washington DC.

The reason is to attend a regional summit hosted by the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), a group consisting mainly of small island states, along with resource-rich Papua New Guinea and the dominant regional powers Australia and New Zealand, both US allies.

The impoverished, strategically unimportant island states dropped off Washington's radar many years ago, former New Zealand diplomat Michael Powles said, as China cultivated diplomatic ties through aid and bilateral agreements.

Powles, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies in Wellington, said the presence of Washington's top diplomat at the PIF summit would send a pointed message to Beijing that the US intends to re-engage in the region.

''If you're going to be crude about it, it's almost the Americans saying 'Hey, don't forget about us','' he told AFP.

''The US has suddenly started doing a lot more in the Pacific after quite a long time of doing the absolute minimal amount, whereas over the last few years China has been pretty active.''

Forum organizers have prepared for Clinton's visit, although the US State Department has not confirmed her travel plans, in line with normal protocols.

Annmaree O'Keeffe, a Pacific specialist at Australia-based think-tank the Lowy Institute, said Washington's renewed focus on the island states was part of a broader move in US foreign policy towards the Asia-Pacific region.

The policy involves the US boosting diplomatic and military resources in the Asia-Pacific, now recognized by the US as a key driver in the global economy, while its engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan winds down.

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