Clinton in South Pacific with China in focus

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 August, 2012, 3:15pm
UPDATED : Friday, 31 August, 2012, 6:29pm

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has arrived in the South Pacific at the top of a six-nation Asia tour during which she aims to reassert American interests in the face of China’s growing influence and calm rising tensions over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Clinton landed in Tahiti late on Thursday for a brief refuelling stop on the trip that will take her from the Cook Islands to Russia’s Far East. The journey will keep her half a world away from US politics at the height of the presidential conventions. But it will put her at the centre of maritime disputes between China and its smaller neighbours.

Clinton will visit Beijing at the midpoint of the 11-day tour that begins in the remote Cook Islands, where she will be the first secretary of state to visit the South Pacific island chain that’s home to just 10,000 people. On the main island of Rarotonga, she will attend an annual gathering of officials from Australia, New Zealand and the tiny nations scattered across the Pacific Ocean.

US officials said Clinton will stress America’s commitment to the sprawling yet sparsely populated area. It is threatened by rising waters, which are attributed to climate change, and faces a choice of whether to continue tight ties with the West or embrace burgeoning Chinese investment and power.

From there, Clinton heads to Indonesia, the seat of the secretariat of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, whose members are sharply divided over how to deal with China’s expansion and conflicting claims over territory in the South China Sea.

A summit of regional leaders in July failed to reach consensus on how to handle the disputes. Clinton will press them to find common ground and hash out a framework for negotiating with China, US officials said.

One senior official told reporters that it was “absolutely manifest” that ASEAN nations find a way to deal with China. “It’s not a matter of geo-strategy, it’s a matter of geography,” the official said.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to publicly preview the discussions, said Clinton would be stressing the US view “that it is absolutely essential that cooler heads prevail in every capital and that great care be taken on these issues.”

The US takes no position on the sovereignty of the disputed territories, though some are claimed by allies such as South Korea, Japan and the Philippines as well as China, but “insists that they are dealt with diplomatically, without coercion (and) without the threat of the use of force.”

China has bristled at the US claiming to have a national security interest in the resolution of the disputes and maintains that they should be resolved between it and each of the other claimants individually, a position that American officials and others say puts the smaller nations at a disadvantage.

After Clinton departs Beijing, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is to make his first visit to China as Pentagon chief in a few weeks to underscore the US message.

After visiting China, where she will raise South China Sea issues along with matters such as the unrest in Syria and Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs, Clinton will stop in East Timor, Brunei and then represent the US at a summit of leaders from Pacific Rim countries in Vladivostok, Russia.

Clinton will be the first secretary of state to travel to East Timor when she makes a brief stop in Dili, the capital.

In another US diplomatic first, the well-traveled Clinton will become the only secretary of state to touch ground in all 10 members of ASEAN when she holds talks in the small oil-rich nation of Brunei.

Clinton made history in December and then July by going to two ASEAN nations that had not seen America’s top diplomat since the mid-1950s – Myanmar, which is emerging from decades of isolation, and Laos.

After Brunei, Clinton will move on to Vladivostok to stand in for President Barack Obama at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which is expected to centre on trade and food security.

In meetings with foreign leaders there, Clinton also will discuss Syria, Iran and North Korea, and will lay the groundwork for the upcoming UN General Assembly, officials said.