By Neil Sands (AFP)
AVARUA, Cook Islands (AFP) ― U.S. 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 D.C.
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 U.S. 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 Center 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.”