The United States is establishing formal diplomatic relations with the Cook Islands and Niue as the independent island nations move to increase their influence across the Indo-Pacific, President Joe Biden announced on Sept. 25 during a meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum at the White House.
“Our objective is to build a better world. ... That starts with building better partnerships with each other,” President Biden said.
“We’re stronger, and the world is safer when we stand together.”
Diplomatic recognition of the Cook Islands and Niue comes as the Biden administration seeks to “bolster Pacific regionalism” and counter communist China’s rapid expansion across the Indo-Pacific.
President Biden also announced that the United States will invest $40 billion in the Pacific islands, double the number of exchange students from the region, and expand maritime domain awareness cooperation with regional powers.
“Since day one of my administration, I have been committed to being an active and engaged partner in the Pacific,” the president said.
US Increases Pacific Islands EngagementThe Cook Islands and Niue are both situated east of New Zealand, with whom they share free association agreements. This means that, although neither is a member state of the United Nations, they may request New Zealand to represent them at any time.
Acknowledging the longstanding U.S. ties to each, the president framed their formal diplomatic acknowledgment as a natural evolution.
A White House official told reporters that the effort was part of the Biden administration’s wider strategy to restore and expand the U.S. presence in the Indo-Pacific.
“[President Biden] is following up on our commitment to take up our engagement to the next level,” the official said during a Sept. 23 call.
“What the Biden administration has been able to do is to step up our game in a big way in the Indo-Pacific.”
The Specter of Communist ChinaNot mentioned but ever present at the summit was the specter of communist China, which has sought to aggressively expand its influence throughout the Indo-Pacific in recent years.
To that end, the White House official acknowledged that U.S. decision-making was shaped to some extent by the malign influence of its greatest competitor.
“Our engagement with the Pacific islands is really not about who we are against but what we are for,” the official said.
“[But] there’s also no question that there is some role that [China] has played in this.”
As such, the official acknowledged that the United States would be working with allies and partners to expand maritime domain awareness programs to the Pacific islands. Likewise, they said, the U.S. Coast Guard vessel Harriet Lane will tour the Pacific islands next year and allow regional powers to receive training onboard.
China’s influence was also felt in two key absences at the summit, those of Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which rules China as a single-party state, has sought to assert increased control over the internal affairs of both nations in recent years.
The White House official said the United States remained “deeply, intensively engaged” with Vanuatu, noting that Vanuatu President Nikenike Vurobaravu had an important vote to attend to.
The administration was “disappointed” that Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare had declined to attend the summit, the official said.