President Barack Obama has followed up his description of himself as America's "first Pacific president" by sending the largest and highest-ranking U.S. delegation ever to a meeting of Pacific leaders.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides is leading an American delegation of more than 50 in Auckland, New Zealand this week, including military and treasury representatives as well as White House officials. While tThe U.S. cannot attend official meetings because it is not one of the 15 Pacific forum nations, its diplomats are engaged in plenty of informal meetings.
Part of the increased U.S. interest here may lie in the fact that China has been making its presence felt in the region through significant economic and political investments.
Nides said Thursday it was "without question" the president's idea to send such a large delegation to Auckland. He said Obama is "very much focused on what we are doing in this region."
"The president himself has asked us to come, to be here, to represent the United States," Nides said.
He brushed aside the notion that the U.S. might fear China's presence in the Pacific.
"We look at our relationship with China in the same way as we look at it around the world _ that we are partners, we work together, and are very comfortable with our relationship," Nides said.
The U.S. relationship with New Zealand is in better shape than it has been at any time in the past quarter-century. Military and diplomatic relations between the countries soured 25 years ago when New Zealand banned nuclear weapons from the country, preventing U.S. warships from visiting.
But in recent years, New Zealand special forces have played a role in the Afghanistan conflict. New Zealand Prime Minister John Key in July announced U.S. marines would visit the country next year for the first time in 25 years.
The U.S. agenda in the Pacific is broad. According to the State Department, its role ranges from trying to combat climate change to increasing maritime security. The U.S. is building community centers, schools, health care facilities, and water systems, the department said in a release, and is even removing explosives that have remained in island nations like Kiribati since World War II.
Another top diplomat, Kurt Campbell, is due to arrive in Auckland on Friday. This week he said Washington has reduced its role in the Pacific over the past 20 years despite ongoing strategic and political interests there.
As part of efforts to reverse that trend, the U.S. Agency for International Development will open a regional office in Papua New Guinea this year to administer a $21 million grant to help islands cope with the effects of climate change.