Clinton lands on tiny Pacific island to do battle with China

Aug 30, 2012
Jonathan Harwood

A geopolitical power struggle between the US and China is about to begin in the Cook Islands

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THE visit of Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, to the tiny South Seas island of Rarotonga this week could mark the start of a major diplomatic arm-wrestle between global superpowers in the Pacific, as America seeks to counter the growing influence of China in the resource-rich region.

After weeks of speculation, Clinton has announced she will personally drop in on an obscure regional summit, the South Pacific Forum, where the leaders of countries including such powerhouses as Niue, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands meet to discuss Pacific affairs with larger nations such as Australia and New Zealand.

It is a barely disguised shot across the bows of China, which has significantly increased its influence in the region through aid and loans in recent years. As well as causing diplomatic shockwaves, Clinton's visit has also stunned the residents of the Cook Islands, which is hosting the summit.

Rarotonga is the capital of the Cook Islands, and the biggest story to emerge from its palm-fringed shores in the last 12 months involved the antics of a drunk and naked New Zealand All Black rugby player in the waterfront bar of Trader Jacks. Now it is awash with US security personnel amid reports that officials on the island of 11,000 people have resorted to borrowing four-wheel-drive vehicles from private owners to beef up the Clinton motorcade, and holiday makers have been turfed out of hotels to make room for the delegation.

Even though Clinton will only attend the post-forum dialogue on Friday, the US delegation will be the largest ever to attend the forum, and China has responded by sending a heavyweight of its own, Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai, to lead their mission.

And as the stakes have risen between those two nations, others have also taken notice. Last week it was reported that Russia wanted to send a delegation, although it is not clear if they have done so. Britain and the EU will also have a presence at the summit.

"Under the Bush presidency, Washington retreated from the Pacific and to their chagrin, China moved in," explains New Zealand website Stuff. "China is believed to have invested US$600 million in aid and soft loans over five years into the Pacific while the US barely comes up with US$20 million a year."

Even the US media have taken note. "In their intensifying contest for influence in the Asian Pacific region, the United States and China are seeing new value in far-flung outposts that until now were coveted more for pearls and sunsets than geostrategic importance," reports the LA Times.

At the epicentre of the battle is the Cook Islands, which is hosting the summit. It is no stranger to Chinese generosity and there is clear evidence of Beijing's influence there. In the last decade China has paid for and built a new courthouse and police station and, earlier this year, agreed a new aid package with the islands, which used to rely on New Zealand for financial help.

The Cook Islands does not have a vote at the United Nations and carries little weight internationally, but those concerned about Chinese influence are quick to point out that it has huge undersea mineral resources. China also holds more licences to fish in Cook Islands waters, which cover an area the size of India, than any other nation.

Chinese influence in the region was neatly illustrated in late 2004 when Vanuatu announced it was scrapping its One China policy and was recognising Taiwan. Ministers from the two nations appeared together to announce the deal. Within a month the prime minister had lost a vote of no confidence and the new foreign minister announced his government had "revoked all agreements... with Taiwan". Within a year the Chinese consulate in Vanuatu had been upgraded to an embassy.

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No doubt $$ signs can be seen reflecting in the eyes of all the delegates of the other participating Pacific countries as well.
New Zealand and Australia are probably also relieved to have an ally playing the ante-up game against China.