Clinton Travels to South Pacific to Show U.S. Interests

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton, U.S. secretary of state. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton journeyed to a palm-fringed South Seas island to underscore U.S. commitment to Pacific security and development, while downplaying tensions with China over its increasingly assertive sea and resource claims.

“The 21st century will be ‘America’s Pacific century’ -- with an emphasis on ‘Pacific,’” Clinton said yesterday, speaking at the Pacific Islands Forum in Rarotonga, one of the remote Cook Islands that lies nearly 3,000 miles (4,827 kilometers) south of Hawaii.

“The ‘Pacific’ half of ‘Asia-Pacific’ doesn’t always get as much attention as it should, but the United States knows that this region is strategically and economically vital, and becoming more so,” she said.

The increasing U.S. attention to the region -- what Obama administration officials have called a strategic “rebalancing” or “pivot” to Asia -- was demonstrated by Clinton’s decision to attend the annual meeting of the 16-nation forum that includes Australia, New Zealand and smaller island nations -- the first U.S. secretary of state to do so.

“All of us have an interest in maintaining peace and security in the Pacific,” she said. “Hundreds of U.S. vessels -- from the Navy and Coast Guard as well as our fishing vessels -- sail these waters.”

While the U.S. tilt to Asia has been driven in part by an interest in protecting U.S. and allied interests as China has extended its regional reach, Clinton -- who is due to visit Beijing on Sept. 4 -- took pains to say the U.S. wants to partner with other nations in aiding the Pacific, including Japan and China.

‘Big Enough’

“We all share an interest in advancing security, prosperity and opportunity,” she said. “After all, the Pacific is big enough for all of us.”

Clinton said the U.S. spends $330 million a year to assist the Pacific Islands with marine conservation and women’s economic empowerment, among other initiatives.

The U.S. Export-Import Bank is also active in the region, providing $3 billion for investment in Papua New Guinea and helping to finance U.S. trade with Tonga, Tuvalu, Fiji and Micronesia, she said.

Clinton announced plans for new programs totaling more than $32 million as part of the Asia-Pacific Strategic Engagement Initiative announced in July. Those programs will support priorities such as sustainable economic development that protects bio-diversity, she said.

Regional Investment

While much has been made of China’s economic inroads in the region, particularly after China recently announced several hundred million dollars in soft loans to the region, Derek Scissors, a China economy specialist at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said China’s total investment in the region is minuscule compared with its global commitments. China spent $257 in the Pacific Islands in 2010, the last year for which official figures are available.

“Looking at Chinese investment in global context, these figures are incidental,” Scissors said in a phone interview. “By themselves, they don’t look like an effort to win influence, more a byproduct of China’s international expansion.”

Total official Chinese investment in 2010 was $68.8 billion, according to China’s Ministry of Commerce.

The U.S. Export-Import Bank financed $7 billion dollars for projects in the Pacific over the last three years, including new liquid natural gas project developments and commercial aircraft purchases, according to the State Department.

Six-Nation Tour

The forum is the first stop for Clinton on an 11-day, six-nation tour that will take her next to Indonesia, followed by China, East Timor, Brunei and Russia.

The Cook Islands, a self-governing democracy associated with New Zealand -- which is responsible for the islands’ foreign relations and defense, according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook -- were a unique venue for an international gathering.

Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna, also the country’s attorney general, environmental chief, head of police and a pearl farmer by trade, hosted the international gathering in a multi-purpose auditorium with bleacher seats and a sports scoreboard, his remarks punctuated by the calls of roosters.

The forum overwhelmed the islands’ supply of rental cars and accommodation, leaving organizers to borrow vehicles for motorcades and rent homes from residents, and forcing many U.S. delegates to double-up in rooms. Clinton’s plane was greeted by dozens of traditional performers wearing colorful flower-printed costumes and fragrant garlands and dancing to celebratory drum music.

Falling Coconuts

The crush of visitors overloaded the island’s satellite hotspots and mobile phone network, making Internet access patchy. Traveling reporters were assured that the crime rate is low, but were warned to “beware of falling coconuts.”

Clinton, the first U.S. secretary of state to attend in the forum’s 41-year history, was joined by Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command.

Her trek across the Pacific has been hailed by many countries in the region and criticized in China’s state-run media. Rival territorial claims among half a dozen Asian nations and concerns over China’s establishment of a new garrison in the South China Sea have fueled tensions in recent months.

Following a lunch with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key of Pacific crayfish, tuna sashimi and New Zealand lamb, Clinton was asked by reporters about the perception that China is making inroads in the Pacific, to the detriment of U.S. interests.

Pacific Partners

The top American diplomat sought to dispel the notion of a competition for influence.

“It is important for the Pacific Island nations to have good relations with as many partners as possible,” including China, Clinton said. The U.S. wants to see China “pursue economic development that will benefit the people” of the region.

Critics of China’s investment in the Pacific say it focused on costly and poor quality “white elephant” projects, such as sports stadiums, most often built by Chinese firms employing Chinese laborers.

Clinton also attended separate events yesterday in seaside cafes with spectacular views of a turquoise ocean highlighting U.S. commitment to marine security, sustainable fisheries, efforts to combat climate change, and the advancement of women.

Gender Equality

At a table with more than a dozen female activists from Pacific Islands, Clinton said that “progress toward gender equality in the Pacific has not kept pace with the rest of the world,” noting that the region has the lowest rate of women’s participation in legislative and executive politics in the world, and one of the higher rates of gender-based violence.

Four of the Pacific states have no women represented in parliament. When women are excluded from the commercial and political life, she said, it “holds back the entire society” because “economic growth is undermined, development is stymied.”

Ernie Bower, a senior adviser on Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, a policy group, said that Clinton’s willingness to “go to the Pacific Islands Forum shows a very granular understanding of what it takes to refocus or ‘pivot’ to Asia. It’s about being there.”

Bower said that, while freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of South China Sea disputes will be “an important motif” of the trip, U.S.-Asia trade and larger security concerns aren’t “all about China. We have really good economic and strategic reasons to be engaging” with the rest of Asia “aside from ‘balancing’ China,” he said.

Territorial Disputes

In Southeast Asia and in Beijing next week, Clinton will urge the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas and will discuss a range of bilateral issues with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Vice President Xi Jinping and other leaders.

In comments directed to Key and to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who left the Pacific forum early because of the deaths of five Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, Clinton expressed gratitude to New Zealand and Australia for the sacrifices of their soldiers and civilians who have served in the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan.

While the loss of life is dispiriting, she said, the U.S. and its partners are “determined to see this through,” because “we cannot afford to see Afghanistan turn back into a haven that threatens us all.”

She also said that the work done to train Afghan security forces, some of whom have turned on their trainers in recent attacks, “is a much greater positive than negative story.”

Clinton will conclude her trip at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit on Sept. 8-9 on Russky Island off the coast of Vladivostok, Russia. She will attend in place of President Barack Obama, who will be at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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