US Recognizes Cook Islands, Niue, Amid Pacific Islands Summit

President Biden announces $40 billion investment, doubling the number of exchange students, and expanding maritime cooperation.
US Recognizes Cook Islands, Niue, Amid Pacific Islands Summit
President Joe Biden (C) poses with Pacific island leaders at the White House on Sept. 25, 2023. (Madalina Vasiliu/The Epoch Times)
Andrew Thornebrooke

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.

“The history and the future of the Pacific islands and the United States are inextricably linked.”

US Increases Pacific Islands Engagement

The 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.

“The United States has a long history of cooperation with the Cook Islands dating back to World War II, when the U.S. military built airport runways in the northernmost atoll Penrhyn and in Aitutaki,” President Biden said in a statement.
“Niue plays a critical and constructive role in the Pacific, including supporting the region’s sustainable development, security, and marine protection and ocean conservation,” he said in a separate statement.

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.”

Beyond diplomatic recognition for the Cook Islands and Niue, the official noted that the return of the U.S. Agency for International Development to the region, the reopening of multiple embassies, and an expanded Peace Corps presence would likely help to bring greater stability and prosperity to the region.

The Specter of Communist China

Not 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 Solomon Islands have come under increased covert control of the CCP through local proxies of the regime’s propaganda department. Similarly, Vanuatu recently signed a policing agreement with the CCP and has been listed by experts as among the top 10 most likely places for the regime’s next overseas military base.

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.

Andrew Thornebrooke is a national security correspondent for The Epoch Times covering China-related issues with a focus on defense, military affairs, and national security. He holds a master's in military history from Norwich University.
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