RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday pledged renewed American commitment to security in the Asia-Pacific, where tensions are rising between China and its smaller neighbors over territorial disputes and many nations face threats from climate change.
Speaking at a meeting of leaders of South Pacific island nations, Clinton said the United States would not abandon its long history of protecting maritime commerce in the region and serving as a counterbalance to domination by any single world power.
However, she played down the idea that the U.S was acting "perhaps as a hedge against particular countries." She said America wants to cooperate with China in the vast Pacific and encouraged other countries, including those in the region, to do the same.
"The Pacific is big enough for all of us," she told reporters at a news conference with New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key, whose country handles defense and foreign relations for the Cook Islands.
Yet she pointed out that China's interests in the region are not necessarily the same as others, a point she also made clear earlier this month on a trip to Africa when she contrasted U.S. goals for that continent as aimed at adding rather than extracting value. The comment was a veiled shot at China, which some complain is using its overseas investments to exploit resources at the expense of local populations.
"Here in the Pacific, we want to see China act in a fair and transparent way," Clinton said. "We want them to play a positive role in navigation and maritime security issues. We want to see them contribute to sustainable development for the people of the Pacific, to protect the precious environment, including the ocean and to pursue economic activity that will benefit the people."
Earlier, at the meeting, China's Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said China was already engaged with the region in a positive way.
"The thrust of China's policy toward the Pacific is to achieve peace, stability and development," the Chinese government's Xinhua News Agency quoted him as saying. "China has done many concrete things to support the economic and social development of Pacific island countries, always in light of the needs and interests of the countries concerned."
In her speech to the meeting, Clinton said the U.S. would remain a big player in the region and pointed to past accomplishments.
"We have underwritten the security that has made it possible for the people of this region to trade and travel freely," she said, noting nearly a century of American military presence in the Asia-Pacific.
"We have 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."
She noted that hundreds of U.S. naval, Coast Guard and commercial vessels ply the Pacific and called for them to play an enhanced role in maintaining free trade and combatting crime, such as human trafficking and illegal fishing.
Clinton is the first secretary of state to participate in the Pacific Island Forum and the first to visit the sprawling but sparsely populated Cook Islands.
Her visit to the main island, population 10,000, in the remote Cook chain has created a buzz of excitement and she was welcomed on arrival by dozens of colorfully clad local traditional dancers and dignitaries amid lots of drumming.
Signs of greeting dotted the main street of Rarotonga, which runs around the 26-kilometer (16-mile) circumference of the island. And well-wishers waved American flags outside the beachfront restaurant where Clinton ate breakfast with other leaders before the meeting that was held in the partly enclosed National Auditorium that doubles as a basketball court.
Her speech, as well as those of other participants, was occasionally punctuated by the crows of roosters, which run freely through the island's small communities and main town.
Clinton also announced a new contribution of more than $32 million for programs throughout the region aimed at boosting economic development while protecting biodiversity in the face of rising waters attributed to climate change. The U.S. already spends $330 million a year on development in the Asia-Pacific.
Clinton is on the first leg of an 11-day, six-nation tour that keep her half a world away from U.S. politics at the height of the presidential conventions but put her at the center of maritime disputes between China and its neighbors.
Clinton will visit Beijing at the midpoint of the trip, which will take her from the Cook Islands next 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 of influence and increasingly aggressive claims on disputed territory.
A summit of ASEAN 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, U.S. officials said.
China has bristled at the U.S. 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.