The United States says it will recognise New Zealand realm countries Cook Islands and Niue as “sovereign states”, as part of a new Pacific plan that will pump $1.4 billion into the region.
A historic two-day White House summit for Pacific leaders began on Thursday, touted by the Biden administration as a “milestone” in the country’s commitment to a region it had neglected.
The US for the first time published a Pacific strategy, and on Friday was expected to announce NZ$1.4b in projects and funding for the region in an apparent bid to directly compete with China’s influence building efforts.
Among the promised “roadmap” that would form a US-Pacific Island Partnership Declaration was a plan to recognise Cook Islands and Niue as sovereign states “following appropriate consultations”.
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Both Pacific Islands are part of New Zealand’s realm, meaning they are self-governing but the New Zealand Government provides them with aid and assistance running their affairs, and New Zealand citizenship for their people. Both also have established independent diplomatic relations with China.
Dr Anna Powles, a Pacific security expert and senior lecturer at Massey University, said the US promise to recognise Cook Islands and Niue as sovereign states was a “surprising element” of the US plan.
“Sovereignty is a loaded term in the Pacific, however there are practical benefits such as the unlocking of US funding that the Cooks and Niue couldn’t previously access.”
Significantly, Powles said, the Pacific strategy looked to align with the Pacific Island countries’ own 2050 Blue Pacific strategy and “priority areas” including climate change, illegal and unreported fishing, and disposal of unexploded ordnance from prior wars.
Powles said the significance of the US producing a strategy with “depth” should not be underestimated, but “the devil is going to be in the detail”.
“The US has engaged at breakneck speed, really, and so the question is whether or not this tempo can be sustained.”
Powles said reference of connecting the Pacific Island Forum to both the Quad, a security arrangement between the US, Australia, India and Japan, as well as the Southeast Asian organisation ASEAN, showed the US was trying to “anchor” the Pacific within a collection of regional groups which favours the US.
“This is very much about an architecture with the US at the centre, at the heart of it, with these hubs and spokes, in terms of mini-lateral groupings, like the Quad, like their Partners in the Blue Pacific.”
Details of the strategy and declaration, provided by a senior administration official on background, showed proposed initiatives spanned economic assistance, climate change adaptation and infrastructure, education programmes, and security and cybersecurity.
Earlier in the year, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi travelled across the Pacific asking countries to sign a similarly expansive region-wide agreement covering development, trade, law enforcement, security, fisheries, and Internet networks. The Pacific nations did not sign the Chinese agreement.
In its plan, the US intended to conclude negotiations on an extension of the South Pacific Tuna Treaty, an agreement between 16 Pacific nations including New Zealand that allows the US to fish in Pacific countries’ exclusive economic zones.
Much of the $1b funding promised would be part of a 10-year economic assistance agreement “associated” with this treaty.
A further $26m would go to climate change resilience, $12m to better weather and ocean data collection. The US Trade and Development Agency would also offer more than $700m in financing for climate projects.
The US also intended to appoint an envoy to the Pacific Island Forum, wanted to open embassies in Kiribati and Tonga, and was negotiating security agreements with Fiji and Papua New Guinea.
There had been reports of disagreement over signing the planned US-Pacific Partnership Declaration, with ABC reporting the Solomon Islands – which has aligned itself closer with Beijing this year – sending a diplomatic note to other Pacific nations saying it would not sign up to a declaration as it lacked consensus.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking to Pacific leaders at a lunch on Thursday, indicated a consensus may have been reached.
"I’m especially pleased as we start our conversations … that we have also come together around a declaration of partnership between the US and the Pacific.
“So I’m very pleased that we have this today, that we’ve agreed on it, and it will give us a roadmap for the work that we’re doing in the future.”
The Pacific Island Forum issued a statement which said the summit would conclude with an “outcomes document”.
“We will secure and build a partnership that will support the realisation of our leaders’ vision and ambitions as outlined in the 2050 Strategy,” said forum secretary Henry Puna.
The summit will continue on Friday.
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