By Li Hongmei, Special to Sina English
The U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made history again by announcing that she will attend an obscure meeting of Pacific Island nations Friday on a palm-fringed Polynesian island that her predecessors never considered worthy of a stop.
Her visit to the Cook Islands, one of Earth's most isolated archipelagoes, - 15 coral atolls and small islands with fewer than 11,000 inhabitants on about 93 square miles of land - is a sign that the Obama administration is not only strengthening ties with China's neighbors in their territorial disputes in the South China Sea. It will also step up diplomacy, development aid and military support to the distant South Pacific to offset “attention lavished by Beijing.”
To greet the distinguished visitor, officials on the Cook Islands had to borrow four-wheel-drive vehicles from private owners for the motorcade. The impending visit, according to one website, will be the biggest thing since a New Zealand rugby star ran naked from the waterfront.
"This is a strong signal to China that the United States is taking seriously the way (China) is ramping up its interest and engagement in the South Pacific," said Annmaree O'Keeffe, a former Australian diplomat now at the Lowry Institute for International Policy, an independent think tank in Sydney.
Clinton explained the emerging strategy at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing this year. China, she noted, had "brought all of the leaders of the South Pacific to Beijing, and wined and dined them."
"Let's just put aside all the moral, humanitarian, do-good side of what we believe in, and let's just talk, you know, realpolitik," she said. "We are in a competition with China."
China has sought for decades to cultivate ties in Asia by providing aid with no strings attached and adhering to the foreign policy of good neighborly and friendly relations.
Not a few analysts say the U.S. Secretary of State’s debut visit to the South Pacific island countries, which have been all along left in the cold by the U.S. governments, would fuel the already volatile situation, as competition is already popping up across the Pacific.
The China Daily newspaper said Mrs. Clinton’s visit "raises concerns" about growing major-power competition in the region.
Although the Obama administration insists that it is not seeking a confrontation with China, it has beefed up U.S. military forces in the region and increased security cooperation with the Philippines and Vietnam. Washington’s hand has, covert or invert, fumbled into the South China Sea.
However, the same Clinton repeatedly played down the idea that the US was acting "perhaps as a hedge against particular countries." She said America wants to cooperate with China in the vast Pacific and encouraged other countries, including those in the region, to do the same.
"The Pacific is big enough for all of us," she told reporters at a news conference with New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key, whose country handles defense and foreign relations for the Cook Islands.
Yet she pointed out that China's interests in the region are not necessarily the same as others, a point she also made clear earlier this month on a trip to Africa when she contrasted US goals for that continent as aimed at adding rather than extracting value. The comment was a veiled shot at China, which some complain is using its overseas investments to exploit resources at the expense of local populations.
Earlier, China's Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said China has been engaged with the region in a positive way.
"The thrust of China's policy toward the Pacific is to achieve peace, stability and development," Xinhua News Agency quoted him as saying. "China has done many concrete things to support the economic and social development of Pacific island countries, always in light of the needs and interests of the countries concerned."
As the first U.S. secretary of state to participate in the Pacific Island Forum and the first to visit the sprawling but sparsely populated Cook Islands, Clinton also announced a new contribution of more than $32 million for programs throughout the region aimed at boosting economic development while protecting biodiversity in the face of rising waters attributed to climate change. The US already spends $330 million a year on development in the Asia-Pacific.
Clinton is on the first leg of an 11-day, six-nation tour that keep her half a world away from U.S. politics at the height of the presidential conventions. She will also visit Beijing at the midpoint of the trip, which will take her from the Cook Islands next to Indonesia, the seat of the secretariat of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Still, China has bristled at the U.S. claiming to have a national security interest in the resolution of the disputes involving China and its neighbors, and maintains that the regional disputes should be resolved between China and each of the other claimants individually.