Only a few weeks after returning from Africa, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is ready to spend a few enchanted evenings in the South Pacific - but it's not a vacation. Clinton will take off on Thursday, August 30, and will meet with leaders from the Cook Islands in the Pacific Ocean, followed by Indonesia, Brunei, East Timor, China and Russia.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement that Clinton's visit will "emphasize the depth and breadth of American engagement across economic, people to people, strategic, environmental, and security interests. The visit also represents a concerted effort to strengthen regional multilateral institutions, develop bilateral partnerships, and build on alliances."
The press release did not reveal whether she would be meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao or Russian President Vladimir Putin. But Clinton is confirmed to attend the Pacific Island Forum on her first stop in the Cook Islands on August 31. The territory, autonomous but associated with New Zealand, has never been visited by a U.S. chief of diplomacy before.
Her presence at the forum has raised some eyebrows in China. An article in the English-language China Daily said, "Clinton's presence as the most senior U.S. official to attend the Pacific Islands Forum indicates the United States plans to re-engage with the South Pacific."
Michael Powles, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies in Wellington, New Zealand, told the AFP that Clinton's attendance would "send a pointed message to Beijing."
"The U.S. has suddenly started doing a lot more in the Pacific after quite a long time of doing the absolute minimal amount," Powles said. "Whereas over the last few years China has been pretty active. It's almost the Americans saying 'Hey, don't forget about us.'"
Annmaree O'Keeffe, a specialist at the Lowy Institute in Australia, also told AFP that Clinton's visit is a sign the U.S. is trying to boost its engagement in the South Pacific as its commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan end.
"When you have a summit like this it brings together all the main players in one spot," O'Keeffe said, "So it's an important place to be if you're trying to rebuild your knowledge and influence in the region."
Another purported reason for Clinton's tour will be to try and mediate between the major Asian superpowers, as disputes over territories, islands, and oceans are escalating.
"We don't want to see the disputes in the South China Sea, or anywhere else, settled be intimidation, by force," said spokesman Nuland in another statement to AFP. "We want to see them settled at the negotiating table." Nuland also said Clinton "seek progress on setting up a code of conduct to manage conflicts in the South China Sea, through which half of global cargo flows."