RAROTONGA The United States will expand security partnerships across the Pacific as it strengthens ties with island nations that sit at the intersection of vast maritime resources and key shipping routes, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Friday.
Clinton arrived in the tiny Pacific outpost of the Cook Islands to participate in this year's Pacific Island Forum, part of Washington's growing effort to woo nations across the Asia-Pacific which are increasingly coming under China's shadow.
Clinton told the gathering, which represents 16 independent and self-governing states ranging from Australia and New Zealand to smaller islands such as Tuvalu and Nauru, that the United States was in the region "for the long haul."
"Seventy years ago, Americans made extraordinary sacrifices on many of these islands represented here and we have since then underwritten the security that has made it possible for the people of this region to trade and travel freely," Clinton said.
"We've consistently protected the Pacific sea lanes through which a great deal of the world's commerce passes. And now we look to the Pacific nations in a spirit of partnership for your leadership on some of the most urgent and complex issues of our time, such as climate change."
Clinton sought to highlight the benefits of the "American model of partnership" in a region where China has in recent years dramatically stepped up its diplomacy and foreign assistance.
She announced more than $32 million in new U.S. programs on issues ranging from sustainable development, climate change and marine protection.
But Clinton also stressed that the United States plays a crucial security role in the region, noting that the U.S. Coast Guard already has formal partnerships with nine Pacific Island nations and was working to build more.
"All of us have an interest in maintaining peace and security in the Pacific," Clinton said, adding the United States was committed to helping fight illegal and unregulated shipping and other crimes that take place at sea such as human trafficking.
She was due to outline more of the U.S. security strategy in the region at an event later on Friday with the head of the U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel Locklear.
RIVALRY WITH CHINA
Clinton's trip to the South Pacific has spurred some criticism in China, where some commentators accused the United States of seeking to stir up trouble as Beijing's economic and political influence expands.
In recent trips to other regions of the world, most notably Africa, Clinton has sought to contrast the U.S. approach to cooperative economic development with other models such as China's, which focus more on condition-free loans and extractive industries such as mining and timber.
China is also represented at the Pacific forum, with a delegation led by Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai, and Beijing is financing dozens of development projects across the region including constructing parliament buildings, airports, roads and hospitals and giving out grants for Chinese language instruction.
Despite what is increasingly being portrayed as a great power rivalry, Clinton said the United States welcomed the chance to work with China and other Pacific development partners including Japan and the European Union.
"We all have important contributions and stakes in this region's success, to advance your security, your prosperity and your opportunity. And I think the Pacific is big enough for all of us," she said.
The three-day visit by Clinton and the 60-odd person U.S. delegation to the Cook Islands - which is in free association with New Zealand - was a major event for the nation's main island of Rarotonga.
"We are encouraged by you and your government's commitment to strengthen the United States government's engagement in our region," Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna said in his welcoming remarks.
Clinton will travel on to Indonesia and China next week for talks that are expected to focus on rising tensions in the South China Sea where Beijing is at odds with several of its southern neighbors over territorial claims.
She will finish the trip with stops in Brunei and East Timor before heading to the Russian port city of Vladivostok, where she will represent U.S. President Barack Obama at this year's Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit of regional leaders.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)