WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden said the United States officially recognised the Pacific nations of Cook Islands and Niue on Monday, as he hosted regional leaders in a bid to wrest influence from China.
The announcement came at the start of a summit with the 18-member Pacific Islands Forum, where US officials said the president was announcing a more assertive American stance in the region.
Biden said in statements that Washington recognised the Cook Islands and Niue as “sovereign and independent” states and would establish diplomatic relations with both.
The move would help maintain a “free and open Indo-Pacific region,” said Biden.
The South Pacific has become the latest source of rivalry between the two superpowers
Biden added that the deals to recognise the two nations would also help curb illegal fishing, deal with climate change in a vulnerable region and boost economic growth.
The Cook Islands and Niue together have fewer than 20,000 inhabitants but constitute a sprawling economic zone in the South Pacific.
Both are self-governing nations in “free association” with New Zealand, meaning that their foreign and defence policies are in varying degrees linked to Wellington.
After decades of being treated as a relative backwater, the South Pacific has become an important arena for competition between the United States and an increasingly assertive China.
China has dramatically ramped up its economic, political and military footprint in the strategic ocean region.
There is “no question that there is some role that the PRC has played in all this,” a senior White House official said on condition of anonymity, referring to China by the abbreviation of its formal name.
China’s “assertiveness and influence, including in this region, has been a factor that requires us to sustain our strategic focus.” The forum brings together states and territories scattered across the Pacific Ocean, from Australia to sparsely populated micro-states and archipelagos.
But China’s influence will be felt through the absence of the prime minister of the Solomon Islands, now closely aligned with Beijing.
Manasseh Sogavare, who was in New York last week to attend the UN General Assembly, did not extend his stay in the United States.
“We’re disappointed that he’s chosen not to come to this very special summit,” another White House official said.
Meg Keen, director of Pacific Island Programmes at Australia’s Lowy Institute, said that while the US had opened new embassies and USAID offices in the region since last year’s summit, Congress had yet to approve the funds.
She added that Pacific island countries “welcome the US re-engagement with the region, but don’t want geopolitical tussles to result in an escalation of militarisation.”
Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2023