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US recognizes two Pacific nations to counter China

September 26, 2023

The Cook Islands and Niue have been recognized by the United States as "sovereign and independent states." The move appeared to be aimed at curbing further Chinese inroads into the Pacific region.

View over the coastline of Niue, South Pacific
Niue, home to less than 2,000 people, is increasing in strategic importance due to its location in the South PacificImage: Michael Runkel/robertharding/picture alliance

US President Joe Biden said on Monday that the United States officially recognized two small Pacific nations.

According to Biden, Washington has recognized the Cook Islands and Niue as "sovereign and independent" states and will establish diplomatic relations with both.

The move would help maintain a "free and open Indo-Pacific region," Biden said. He added that the agreements to recognize the two nations would also help curb illegal fishing, address climate change in a vulnerable region, and promote economic growth.

The US and Niue already established diplomatic relations on Monday with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Niue Premier Dalton Tagelagi signing a joint statement to that effect, the US State Department said.

President Joe Biden, sixth from right, poses for a family photo with Pacific Islands Forum leaders at the White House in Washington
US President Joe Biden hosted the Pacific Islands Forum at the White House in WashingtonImage: Susan Walsh/AP/picture alliance

Why is the US interested in the Niue and the Cook Islands?

The Cook Islands and Niue have a combined population of less than 20,000, but form a vast economic zone in the South Pacific.

Both are self-governing nations in "free association" with New Zealand, meaning that their foreign and defense policies are tied to Wellington to varying degrees.

After decades of being treated as a relative backwater, the South Pacific has become an important arena for competition between the United States and an increasingly assertive China.

Beijing has dramatically ramped up its economic, political and military footprint in the strategic ocean region.

Biden makes new pledges to Pacific leaders

The announcement of the recognition of the Cook Islands and Niue came at the start of a summit with the 18-member Pacific Islands Forum, which is seen as part of a US charm offensive to block further Chinese inroads into the strategic region that Washington has long considered its own backyard.

The forum brings together states and territories scattered across the Pacific, from Australia to sparsely populated microstates and archipelagos. But China's influence will be felt with the absence of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare of the Solomon Islands, now closely aligned with Beijing.

"The United States is committed to ensuring an Indo-Pacific region that is free, open, prosperous, and secure. We're committed to working with all the nations around this table to achieve that goal," Biden said at the welcoming ceremony.

He added that the recognition of the two island states will "enable us to expand the scope of this enduring partnership as we seek to tackle the challenges that matter most to our peoples' lives."

Biden also pledged to work with Congress to provide $200 million (€189 million) more in funding for the region for projects aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change, spurring economic growth, countering illegal fishing and improving public health.

Concerns over China-Solomon Islands deal

dh/ab (AP, AFP, Reuters)