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Auntie Hillary Visits Cook Islands Hoping to Put China on Sidelines

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands, Sep 6 2012 (IPS) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was greeted as celebrity-royalty by Cook Islanders during an unprecedented visit at the end of last week to attend a regional meeting of Pacific island nations here.

But while “Auntie Hillary” (as the locals call her, tongue somewhat in cheek) was being enthusiastically welcomed at the tiny Rarotonga airport, China and New Zealand announced a 47.7-million-dollar infrastructure project to improve the water quality for the island’s 11,000 residents.

That announcement was to be made earlier in the day but the press conference was rescheduled and coincided with Clinton’s arrival, forcing international media to make the choice: U.S. or China?

At the official meeting the next morning Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai reminded leaders of 15 Pacific Islands nations and representatives from another 40 countries including Clinton that China had built more than 80 industrial, agricultural and infrastructure projects in the Pacific island countries over the years.

Some estimates put China’s assistance and low-interest loans at 600 million dollars since 2005, according to Australia’s Lowy Institute.

“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,” said Tiankai at the 43rd Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) Post-Forum Partners Dialogue Meeting.

“In extending assistance, China attaches importance to the long-term development of recipient countries to ensure China’s assistance fits their development strategies,” he said.

Tiankai also noted that this was China’s 23rd year participating in the Post-Forum Partners Dialogue that follows the annual region meeting of 14 Pacific Island nations and Australia and New Zealand.

The U.S. has participated as well, sending low-level officials in recent years although it was once had a major presence in the region, especially after World War II. However, in the mid 1990s, the U.S. slashed its foreign assistance and shuttered its regional aid office.

That was then. Now, in one of the world’s smallest and most remote countries, Clinton, Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, and their entourage of 50 staff, security and U.S. media convoyed past the hulking Chinese-built police station and courthouse to the Post-Forum meeting.

“The 21st century will be America’s Pacific century, with an emphasis on Pacific,” Clinton said in her forum address.

She went on to say the U.S. is spending 330 million dollars every year supporting the nations and people of the Pacific Islands. And late last year, Washington opened a USAID office in Papua New Guinea.

“Today, I’m pleased to announce our plans for new programmes total more than 32 million dollars,” she said.

Clinton also promised the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy will help these small island states reduce illegal fishing in their ocean territories that are in the millions of square kilometres in size. Auntie Hillary and former president Bill Clinton spent the weekend in the Cook Islands and this week hopscotch to Brunei, Russia, China, East Timor and Indonesia.

“We are really pleased to have the U.S. re-engaged in the Pacific,” said Henry Puna, prime minister of the Cook Islands, a nation of less than 20,000 people on 15 small islands. Puna quickly followed by saying the China-NZ water infrastructure project is a “huge project for the Cook Islands”.

“We also think this is the first time China has worked with another partner on a development project,” he told IPS.

The Cook Islands are a self-governing parliamentary democracy, with a close relationship with New Zealand, using their currency and its citizens carrying New Zealand passports.

The joint project involves a 25.4-million-dollar low-interest loan that Chinese Minister Cui said had “no strings attached”.

“The Chinese are trying to be good friends to the Cook Islands and the Pacific people generally,” said Derek Fox, a spokesperson for the Cook Islands government.

“China has been active in the Pacific for the past 10 years and particularly the last five,” Fox told IPS.

New Zealand also has a close relationship with China and was the first Western nation to sign a free trade agreement. Recently a Chinese company bought 16 New Zealand dairy farms, a move that was quite controversial amongst New Zealanders, Fox said.

China’s interests in the Pacific include a significant fishing presence. The South Pacific is home to 60 percent of the world’s tuna stocks. China has been given licenses to double the size of its tuna fleet in the Cook Island waters, including building nearly 20 state-of-the art trawlers with flash-freeze abilities.

Fish are one reason for China’s Pacific island affection but so are the region’s 16 votes at the United Nations and other international fora, Fox said.

Everyone welcomes the renewed U.S. interest, especially since with Hawaii it is a fellow Pacific nation, he said. What the U.S. attention really means and what it will cost will be is not known yet.

“I think many here will take a wait and see attitude,” he said.

 
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    Captain Bligh visits the Cook Islands. Perchance, another naval carrier base in the offing?

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