Making Waves in Rarotonga: Clinton’s Three Messages about U.S. Pacific Strategy

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent a clear message August 31 by traveling to remote Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, a nation of approximately 17,000 people, for the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF): “Don’t count the United States out.” The PIF is a grouping of 16 self-governing states in Oceania that work toward shared goals such as sustainable economic development, environmental conservation, and regional integration. Since 1989, 13 partners including the United States, plus the EU, have participated in a dialogue with the PIF following their annual forum. As the first U.S. secretary of state to attend the post-forum dialogue, Hillary Clinton has sent three strategic messages to the region.

First, Clinton’s high-profile visit, which included among her delegation the head of the U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Sam Locklear, sends a strong message that the United States has not forgotten its commitment to the Pacific in the “Pacific Century.” It is another signal that the region is of growing significance as Washington rebalances its foreign, security, and economic policy toward Asia. Clinton announced a new aid package of $32 million for the Pacific Islands that will be dedicated to new projects tackling issues such as climate change, marine protection, and sustainable development. That new aid comes on top of some $330 million in U.S. annual aid to the Pacific countries, the recent opening of a regional U.S. Agency for International Development office in Papua New Guinea in 2011 and about $100 million in military assistance.

Clinton seized the opportunity presented by the PIF to expand coordination with regional partners Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and France. Aid will become more coordinated under the auspices of the Cairns Compact on Strengthening Development Coordination. Perhaps most important, the United States has launched an initiative to pool resources with these partners to address a key concern raised by the PIF, the overexploitation of fisheries. Clearly, Clinton did not arrive at the PIF empty-handed: she has laid the foundation for an ongoing commitment to the Pacific that will last beyond the current administration.

The second message from Clinton’s visit is about U.S. strategy toward China. Some media have speculated that Clinton’s visit and the announcement of a new aid package were aimed squarely at China, suggesting that some kind of strategic competition is emerging in the Pacific. However, framing the China-U.S. relationship in the Pacific in this way is misleading. As Clinton said in her official press statement, “the Pacific is big enough for all of us.”

It would be wrong to deny the Pacific Islands the opportunities that growing Chinese aid affords. China has historically offered approximately $200 million a year in foreign assistance to the Pacific but may have become the largest regional aid donor in 2012 by providing a $3 billion soft loan to Papua New Guinea to improve the Highlands Highway. China provides vital capital for investments in infrastructure such as port facilities, airports, and roads that could help the Pacific Islands link to the global economy. In Niue, for example, Chinese aid is expected to build infrastructure projects that will help launch the island’s tourist industry.

From a U.S. perspective, the concern is not that the Chinese are active in the region, but that Chinese activity can undermine the larger interests of the United States and its regional allies. Clinton said in a press conference August 31 that the United States would like to see China give assistance in a more transparent and sustainable manner that keeps the well-being of the Pacific people and their environment in mind. It is in the U.S. interest that the Pacific Islands experience peace, stability, and economic development, the cornerstone of which is the practice good governance.

Chinese aid that is not transparent undermines this goal by fostering corruption. Moreover, China’s relationship with Fiji has been an important crack in the regional policy of isolation aimed at coercing Fiji’s military regime to return to democracy. China has increased its assistance to Fiji at a time when the United States and most Western countries have shunned the military regime following a 2006 military coup.

It is clear from Clinton’s statements that the United States is not seeking to stop China from interacting with the Pacific Islands but, instead, trying to encourage it to become a responsible stakeholder in the region. This should be viewed within the context of the larger U.S. strategy of pressing China to comply with the current rules-based system instead of eroding it.

Finally, Hillary Clinton’s visit has lent legitimacy to the PIF, reinforcing its status as the premier intergovernmental organization in the Pacific. The organization’s split with Fiji in 2009 undermined its prestige. As one of the largest and wealthiest islands in the Pacific, Fiji has traditionally been a logistical hub for the Pacific Islands, and regional economic integration agreements such as PACER Plus cannot be effectively negotiated without Fiji’s participation. On top of that, since its suspension Fiji has successfully strengthened alternative organizations to the PIF, including the Melanesian Spearhead Group, which aims to improve economic cooperation between the most populous and resource rich-islands in the region, a goal that closely echoes that of the PIF. By recently hosting the “Engaging the Pacific” meeting series, Fiji has created opportunities to cooperate with its other Pacific neighbors and avoid the PIF’s isolation policies. As several analysts have noted, Fiji’s suspension runs the risk of making the PIF obsolete.

From the U.S. perspective, the PIF needs to remain the premier grouping in the region because it is an organization in which the United States has access. Most important, key partners with which the United States shares interests in the region, Australia and New Zealand, hold significant sway in the PIF as founding members, in contrast to the Melanesian Spearhead Group in which their influence is minimal.

The secretary of state’s landmark visit to Rarotonga was not simply an opportunity to announce new initiatives with remote islands in the Pacific; it reflected larger U.S. strategy in the Asia Pacific region. The visit sent a clear message about how the United States envisages regional cooperation in Asia and, most important, signaled that Washington plans to play a role as a leader in the region for years to come.

(This Commentary originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of Pacific Partners Outlook.)

Elke Larsen is a research assistant with the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Elke Larsen