Washington DC has renewed its focus in the Pacific because of China’s engagement here, and President Joe Biden is expected to send a senior Administration official to the Pacific Islands Forum in Cook Islands this year 

For those leaving behind their Kiwi summer in favour of Cook Islands or Niue this January, you can expect to find sea temperatures in the high 20s and sunshine for eight hours a day. The wet season might bring rain showers to interrupt the sprawling blue skies, but they won’t last long. The beaches will be quiet and peaceful, the sights uncrowded. This is the islands’ low season.

Kiwis and Australians comprise 80 percent of travellers to Cook Islands. While we tend to spend our summer months at home, local businesses on the islands rely on North American and European travellers to fill the gap.

However, attracting visitors from afar has posed a key challenge in recent years: getting noticed.

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“Our biggest problem here is the diaspora – our numbers are so small and we’re a little off the beaten track,” said Robert Skews, managing director of Island Hopper Vacations, a Cooks-based company that brokers bookings for individual travellers, travel agents and wholesalers. He expects occupancy to fall as low as 40-50 percent during this year’s low season.

But a recent decision by the Biden administration provides a glimmer of hope. Amid an ongoing struggle to out-dominate China in the region, the US is initiating direct relations with Cook Islands and Niue. For the small island nations in the South Pacific Ocean, this presents a plethora of economic development opportunities.

“The benefits of direct diplomatic relations are really, really good,” said Peleni Talagi, Niue’s Secretary to Government. She pointed to existing examples, such as support from Australia to build a waste management facility and recycling plant.

“We really saw the benefit during Covid, when we had countries providing support to us directly for needs we had at the time,” she said.

She also acknowledged the benefit of relations with a country as big as the US. “They have advanced systems that we can benefit from.”

Muri and its small motu in the Cook Islands. A new flight between Honolulu and Rarotonga and the US’s decision to recognise the country’s sovereignty will help to raise the destination’s profile. Photo: Supplied

Josh Mitchell, an official with Cook Islands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs, pointed to opportunities relating to disaster management and climate resilience.

“[Bilateral relations] open up all sorts of possibilities for education,” he said. “With climate change, the assistance we’re looking for is targeted. A lot of these partner countries have strengths in those areas in terms of technology and skills transfer.”

For the tourism sector, it helps that Hawaiian Airlines has announced a new, weekly flight to Cook Islands starting in May. Biden’s announcement came three months after Air New Zealand announced it would not reinstate its Rarotonga to Los Angeles service, which was paused during the pandemic. This left the islands without a direct North American connection.

Skews hopes the new flight and the Biden administration’s decision will help to raise the destination’s profile. “I think any recognition in North America through the Biden administration, and any publicity we can get is great. These connections, including with Hawaii … will be a way for us to grow that business.”

What has the Biden administration agreed to do?

“I’m proud to announce that, following appropriate consultations, we will recognise the Cook Islands and Niue as sovereign,” announced President Joe Biden last September. He was speaking during the first US-Pacific Island Country Summit, which invited 14 Pacific Island leaders to Washington DC. The multi-day event focused on US cooperation in the South Pacific region.

Once recognition comes into effect – it is not yet clear when it will – the US will join a limited number of countries that deal directly with the island nations, rather than through New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Cook Islands and Niue will be able to negotiate directly for support that meets their specific requirements, particularly about climate resilience and renewable energy.

As self-governing states in free association with New Zealand, Cook Islands and Niue share New Zealand’s head of state and enjoy rights to New Zealand citizenship. While both countries are fully responsible for their internal affairs, foreign relations are less clear cut.

“I witnessed first-hand China’s intentions. I can tell you; their intentions are clear: control and dominance in the South China Sea and the hemisphere.”
– Ryan Zinke, Republican congressman

Each country’s constitution provided New Zealand with delegated authority to assist with foreign affairs and defence matters. These arrangements were renewed in 2022 when New Zealand signed updated statements of partnership.

Nowadays, the islands’ cultural and governance connections to New Zealand remain strong but growing internal capacity and global interests have pushed them to seek independent voices on the world stage. The Cooks are independently recognised by 58 countries, plus the EU. Niue works directly with 19 countries.

“If we need assistance from New Zealand we will ask them, but the majority of the time we conduct our own external affairs,” Talagi said.

Since Biden’s announcement, a series of US officials have visited Cook Islands and Niue, including Tom Udall, the US Ambassador to New Zealand. “The President’s announcement of the US plan to recognise the Cook Islands is a particularly exciting new chapter in our bilateral relationship,” he said in a statement after his December visit. “That announcement and our visit here are the start of the formal process of establishing diplomatic relations.”

US Ambassador Tom Udall meets Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown in December. Source: US Embassy

Udall’s trip initiated a dialogue intended to be ongoing as the countries move towards direct relations. The embassy is said to have adopted a Talanoa methodology – the purpose of which is to remove distance, share stories and build empathy to make decisions for the collective good.

Why is the US doing this now?

Washington’s renewed focus in the Pacific is heavily attributed to China’s engagement in the region. The US leadership’s staunch opposition to China’s growth was apparent earlier this month, when the US House of Representatives secured bipartisan agreement for a new select committee to address the military and economic challenges posed by China.

“As Secretary of the Interior, I led a delegation of officials to the Pacific Islands and witnessed first-hand China’s intentions,” said Rep Ryan Zinke, a House Republican and former member of the Trump administration. “I can tell you; their intentions are clear: control and dominance in the South China Sea and the hemisphere.”

According to Craig Kafura, assistant director for foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, concern about Chinese power and influence has been a recurring theme in US policy documents for several years. “That has carried over into a number of regions, and it has popped up in a lot of the US’s bilateral and multilateral relationships,” he said.

The US is expected to signal its reengagement with the region by sending a senior official like Antony Blinken or John Kerry to the Pacific Islands Forum in Cook Islands later this year.

This would follow a virtual speech by Vice President Kamala Harris to the 2022 Forum, where she announced new US embassies in Kiribati and the Solomon Islands. She also unveiled a plan to triple funding for maritime security and climate-related projects – from $21 million a year to $60m a year for the next 10 years.

The administration has also partnered with the UK, Japan, Australia and New Zealand to create the Partners in the Blue Pacific initiative, which seeks to enhance regional cooperation on the climate crisis and other issues.

“There’s a clear bidding war going on in the Pacific between the US and China,” Geoffrey Miller, a geopolitical analyst with Democracy Project, said. “I think it’s very clear that China is asking Pacific countries to sign up to all kinds of economic and other agreements. But the US is doing similar things too.”

China has held bilateral and multilateral relationships in the Pacific for many years. Eight countries in the region are designated “comprehensive strategic partners” – the highest diplomatic partnership classification it offers. Ten nations have signed Belt and Road Initiative cooperation agreements, and Beijing has funded several infrastructure and disaster preparedness projects.

In April last year, China and the Solomon Islands signed a security agreement, sparking concerns of a Chinese military presence in the region. “The US were really spooked by China signing that security deal with the Solomon Islands,” Miller said. “Now they’re playing catch up in a big way and they’re bending over backwards to show they’re a viable alternative.

The attention provides an opportunity for the tourism sector, said Skews. “America has not paid a lot of attention to the Pacific since WWII, but now the Chinese have moved closer to the Solomons, which has created a lot of political activity … It’s what we can garner from that to help tourism that is the big question.”

What does this mean for the nations’ relationships with New Zealand?

“The process of the Cook Islands or Niue establishing diplomatic relations with third countries does not change the constitutional relationship with Aotearoa New Zealand,” said a spokesperson from New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Aotearoa New Zealand is supportive of the Cook Islands’ and Niue’s deeper engagement in international affairs and within the international community.”

That said, US recognition brings the Cook Islands one step closer to joining the UN general assembly – an aspiration that has been floated and shelved in the past.

According to recent statements by Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta, New Zealand would support any moves in this direction. However, the decision would require fundamental changes to the constitutional relationship, including addressing citizenship, the ministry spokesperson said.

Niue does not have the same UN ambitions, for now. “It’s not something we’re pursuing at this stage,” Talagi said. “We’re very young, and we’re just finding our feet.”

Emma Ricketts is working towards a masters in journalism in Washington DC, where she covers politics and environmental issues. Previously, she worked as a lawyer and focused on climate-related risk

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