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Clinton Visit Signals Renewed Diplomatic Interest in South Pacific

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (FILE).
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (FILE).

During her high profile two-week tour of Asia, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said the United States will increase its development and security cooperation with countries in the South Pacific. On Wednesday, Clinton will visit Papua New Guinea, and later New Zealand and Australia.

Secretary Clinton's talks with Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Michael Somare will cover a wide range of issues: environmental concerns, women's rights and governance in the resource-wealthy yet economically poor nation.

The top U.S. diplomat's visit to Port Moresby is part of Washington's renewed interest in the region, which in recent years has received increased assistance from China. Most countries in the South Pacific, outside of Australia and New Zealand, are small and poor. A few are politically unstable and several island nations are threatened by rising sea levels.

The Lowy Institute of International Policy in Sydney estimates that in 2008 China pledged $206 million in grants and soft loans to eight small Pacific nations. The U.S. Agency for International Development [USAID] only gave $3.6 million.

Clinton says that is going to change: next year USAID will open an office in Fiji with a $20 million climate change fund. It will be the first USAID presence in the region in 16 years.  Military-ruled Fiji is believed to be the biggest recipient of Chinese aid in the region.

"We are working through the Pacific Island Forum to support the Pacific island nations as they strive to really confront and solve the challenges they face from climate change and freedom of navigation," said Clinton.

It is not too late for the U.S. to engage with the region, says Allan Patience, a professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, and an expert on South Pacific nations.

"There is still a strong sense that America is an important presence, but that America has been neglecting the region," Patience said. "China itself has some problems, in that some [Pacific] states are asking too much, demanding too much and are not prepared to follow through with what China wants them to do. A good case would be Fiji, which has been trying to use China against some of the other countries in the region particularly Australia and New Zealand, in defending the takeover by the military couple of years ago," Patience points out. "Australia and New Zealand have reduced their aid, making it difficult for Fiji. Fiji turned to China."

Australia has been the traditional regional power, giving about $1 billion in aid this year. But relations with its neighbors have sometimes been strained because of Canberra's insistence on political or economic reforms.

Professor Patience cautions that politicians in Port Moresby could use Clinton's visit to bolster their legitimacy despite allegations of widespread corruption and human rights abuses. Transparency International this year ranked Papua New Guinea among the most corrupt countries in the world.

About half of the country's income comes from oil drilling and mining for metals such as copper and gold, activities that environmental watchdogs say damage the country's rich biodiversity. The U.S. oil company Exxon Mobil operates a natural gas project that could pump $30 billion into Papua New Guinea's government over 30 years.

From Port Moresby, Clinton travels to New Zealand.

Kurt Campbell, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, says the U.S. will recommit to ties with New Zealand.  Campbell adds relations have been largely ignored since Wellington banned nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed ships from its waters 25 years ago.

"There, we will issue the so-called Wellington Declaration which will underscore our desire to see U.S.-New Zealand relations return to a significance in terms of coordination on a range of issues - non-proliferation, politics, climate change, how we work together in the Pacific Islands," Campbell said. "And we, of course, are very grateful for the work and support that New Zealand has provided us and other nations in Afghanistan."

From there, Secretary Clinton travels to Australia, a close ally whose forces serve in Afghanistan.

Clinton and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates will meet with Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd and Defense Minister Stephen Smith to mark the 25th anniversary of bilateral ministerial talks.

Secretary Clinton earlier said the allies will continue to modernize defense cooperation to respond to "a more complex maritime environment."

Some Australian political analysts say Canberra is caught between Washington and Beijing. Chinese demand for Australian resources have contributed to an economic boom in Australia and relations with Beijing have grown closer in recent years.  An Australian defense ministry report last month warned that increased Chinese military spending is changing the balance of power in Asia as the U.S. experiences military budget pressures.

In recent years, Australian mines have been one of the biggest suppliers to China of iron ore and other raw materials. But even as Sino-Australian economic ties flourished, many Australian officials and foreign affairs analysts remain wary over China's growing regional power.

Clinton wraps up her Asia-Pacific tour in American Samoa, a U.S. territory in the South Pacific devastated by a tsunami in 2009.

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