Rarotonga almost too small for Hillary Clinton
Tiny Rarotonga is set to host great power politics and diplomatic posturing this week with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, reputedly accompanied by her husband Bill, arriving on the island to challenge growing Chinese influence in the South Pacific.
For the island’s 14,000 people, famous for their relaxed ways and dancing girls, it will be a much bigger show than when All Black Zac Guildford ran naked from waterfront Trader Jacks.
US diplomats and security advisers have been on Rarotonga and Aitutaki to the north checking venues.
The 16-nation Pacific Forum, and the dialogue that follows, will take place at the budget traveller’s favourite Edgewater Resort.
The off-limits-to-all-but leaders’ retreat will be on Aitutaki with military aircraft from Australia and New Zealand used to fly them north.
With only loading space at Rarotonga’s small airport, most of the big planes will have to park in Tahiti – an hour's flying to the east.
Diplomatic sources say the US Navy has moved several large ships, including an aircraft carrier, toward the Cook Islands to help logistics, including transport between the two islands.
US Navy vessels used to be regulars at Forum venues and on several occasions journalists had to sleep in their bunks because of the lack of hotel beds.
Prime Minister John Key is scheduled to attend the forum but unless he stays for the post-forum dialogue session, he will not meet the Clintons.
The US State Department has yet to confirm Clinton’s trip, and it may yet be derailed by Middle Eastern events, but locals on Rarotonga report extensive security preparations are underway.
Last week small tourist buses were borrowed by police to give them motorcade practice on the solitary 32 kilometre island road.
Australia and New Zealand are providing most of the behind scenes security.
Under the Bush presidency, Washington retreated from the Pacific and to their chagrin, China moved in.
If Clinton arrives she will lead the highest powered and largest US delegation ever to the forum.
China is believed to have put US$600 million (NZ$741 million) in aid and soft loans over five years into the Pacific while the US barely comes up with US$20 million a year.
China has been coy on details so far but it was believed vice foreign minister Fu Ying was going attend, but she could yet be replaced by someone higher up given Clinton’s role.
Forum secretary general Tuiloma Neroni Slade told Radio Australia that having Clinton at the forum would be significant: “Clearly of the highest value, an opportunity for our own leaders to interact with the very high leadership of the United States.”
As well as trying to short circuit the powerful Chinese influence, diplomatic sources say Clinton wants the forum to re-admit Fiji, suspended by the body following military strongman Voreqe Bainimarama’s 2006 coup.
She has also urged Australia and New Zealand to end its isolation of Fiji, suggesting it is giving too much opening for Chinese moves in the region.
- © Fairfax NZ News